Peter, Paul and Mary, Augustus Caesar, and Our Idealized Images

The recent passing of Mary Travers, famous for being a member of the folk-singing group Peter, Paul and Mary, made me think about that group and the songs they sang, such as “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and “If I Had A Hammer.” I happened to see a special on the Public Broadcasting System about this group, filled with interviews and memories. What caught my attention was that these three singers, who seemed to be such a wonderful unit, were not close at all.

There was plenty of tension and bad feeling between them. But when they were on stage, you would never know that they weren’t crazy about each other. They would look at each other with such affection and respect. As I was watching this show, I was wondering: So was all that affection and respect just a fake, part of the act on stage? As if to answer me, there was an interview with Mary and I don’t remember the exact words but she says something to this effect: “When we were on stage, we put aside our differences, and we sang to the idealized image of each other.” So Mary would sing to the ideal Paul and the ideal Peter, and so on, they’d sing to each other as perfect people, and their three voices sang in exquisite harmony, a perfect blend.

When we pray, we are trying to project an idealized image of what we should be as human beings. We know that we’re not those human beings; we know we’re not perfect, but we aspire to be better, more giving, less selfish. When we sing in prayer, we’re singing with the rest of a group, and we know that they’re not perfect either, but we sing with their idealized images, and together we sing as if we’re a perfect group of perfect human beings.

In the ancient world, history tells us, one of the most powerful men who ever lived was Augustus Caesar, Emperor of Rome. You may know that Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He began to reign in 32 B.C.E. Four years later, he commissioned an artist to do a model portrait of his head. The features on this head, archaeology has discovered, are far more serene and ideal than those he bore in real life. The features on this sculpture are so unrealistic as to constitute what one archaeologist calls “an artificial face.”

What did Augustus really look like? He had unruly hair, tensed forehead and mouth, a small pointed chin, a bony and scraggy face, small eyes, and narrow lips. Why did he commission this idealized portrait? He wanted to show his subjects that he possessed ideal human qualities and that he stood for a culture that combined the best traditions of human civilization. He also wanted his portrait to express his official view that he had brought peace, prosperity, and security to the Roman world, which for the previous one hundred years had known only foreign wars and civil strife. The emperor’s public relations effort was very effective; Augustus gained the praise of even such literary greats such as Virgil and Horace.

But here’s the interesting part for me.  Historians have realized that as the years went on, Augustus modeled his life and his actions and thoughts on the characteristics that he had told the artist to include in his idealized portrait. He did bring peace to Rome through his reign of forty-five years. He became more sensitive to the ethical use of power and wielded that power with more justice. He became an excellent ruler. In the end, Augustus identified himself with his idealized face. His idealized image ultimately transformed him into a great emperor.

I’m having trouble these days in dealing with someone who is very important to me. I haven’t said or done anything wrong yet, but I’m getting close, very close, to saying something out of impatience or frustration and it would be very hurtful to the person if I did. So how can I stop myself from making a mistake that will hurt someone I don’t want to hurt?

I’ve been trying to live up to my idealized image of myself. That isn’t working too well, because even my idealized image isn’t so ideal. Instead, I keep thinking about the idealized image of the other person, thinking about how he has been at other times, the good things he’s capable of. When I get close to saying something I shouldn’t, I think about who he has been and who he could be, not who he is at the moment. It’s been working pretty well.

That’s what our idealized images can do for us. Our idealized images can help us.

We need our idealized images in order to improve ourselves in our relationships with others.

We need to see ourselves as devoted children, because from that image we can become more attentive to our parents’ needs.

We need to see ourselves as understanding parents, because from that self-perception, w can learn to become more accepting of our children’s efforts to find their own way.

We need to see ourselves as good human beings who can continue to grow ethically and humanly by becoming more honest, more decent, and more compassionate.

We need our idealized images as a goad to greater aspiration.

There’s a story from Jewish folklore about a king who was very powerful but who was very cruel and hated and feared by his subjects. His face became creased with lines of cruelty and hostility. His face looked hard and even sadistic. He was repelled by the image in the mirror. So he went to a mask-maker, who made him a mask that was handsome, kind and compassionate. He wore it every day for years. But then one day he felt strange and guilty, that people were responding to a mask but not the real him. So he went back to the mask-maker and asked him to take it off. The mask-maker took the mask off the king, slowly and carefully. To their amazement, what he saw in the mirror was that his face had assumed the face of the mask that he had worn for so long.

The story says that if we live our lives with our idealized image as our outward face, it might become our inner face, our real self.

When we come together in prayer, we come as a community. Our voices may not be as good as Peter Paul and Mary, and we may have tensions just like they did. But by singing to our idealized images, we may become the people we want to be, the chosen people of G-d.