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A picture of Greeks

'When we look in the mirror we think that we see ourselves clearly but our reflection is clouded by many things. If we can strip the layers back we will see our true self,' writes John Vithoulkas

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18 August 2017

The mirror stood proudly above their fireplace. They could not remember when it had come into the family. It seemed to have always been there, present in every photo and every drawing, sitting behind them all yet more prominent than any individual. And it always seemed to be changing. Initials in the glass etched by an uncle, caulk chipped by a grandfather, frame varnished by a grandmother. The mirror was old, but age enhanced it. Each scrape a story. And it gleamed - a reflection as clear as the summer sky above the Aegean.

She stood before the mirror and marvelled at her reflection. She was naturally tall but the ferocity of her spirit elevated her further. Her hair was adorned with a crown of olive leaves. It was she who long ago conceived games to celebrate excellence. Her eyes were clear but deep with wisdom. They had first seen the vision of democracy. A scar on her shoulder showed where an arrow had struck at Thermopylae. There she had defended European civilisation against invaders from the east. Her brow was heavy. It had suffered four hundred years of slavery after Constantinople fell. Her hands calloused. They had raised the flag of revolution in 1821. Her lips rough; proudly they said OXI in 1941 but now cracked by the ravages of her resistance that followed. She stood dignified. She stood glorious. She had much to be proud of.

This reflection she saw in the mirror. And she admired it much. Yet this reflection was not truly her. Her true self was there, but she was hidden under layers. Each achievement of her ancestors a layer upon her true self. The mirror showed her her history. And she was glorious. She proudly wore each layer. She proudly wore each achievement of her ancestors. And she saw herself as glorious. But in seeing her history she did not see her true self. She did not see who she truly was beneath the layers she had not earned.

But her fathers, all those who had walked before her, they looked at her through the mirror. And they saw each layer and they saw her true self. And if her fathers could speak to her they would tell her that all their struggles; their achievements and disappointments; each breath, each moment, each instant, was a layer she should be proud of. It was a layer to be worn and it was a layer to adorn her. And they would tell her that the layers also demanded of her. They demanded that she endeavour, that she achieve, that she make herself worthy to wear them. They demanded that she listen and question. That she create. Art. Dance. Music. Poetry. Above all, they demanded that they be worn with pride, but that her pride in her past be matched by her actions in the present. That she seek to excel in every way. That she not sit faintly under them but strive to make her own achievements. And that in time her achievements would become a new layer. A layer that would sit alongside their layers. They demanded that she be all she could be. This her fathers would tell her.

And her mothers, all those who had walked before her, they looked at her through the mirror. And they saw each layer and they saw her true self. And if her mothers could speak to her they would tell her that all in her family had the same layers. That no matter where they travelled, no matter where they lived, they each shared the same ancestors. That her layers were a rich inheritance. A birthright she wore, just as all in her family had worn. And her mothers would tell her to hold true to her layers. To be good. To be kind. Φιλότιμο. Αλληλεγγύη. Μεγαλοψυχία. Γενναιοδωρία. These were the values her layers taught her. And her mothers would tell her that the ways of the new country should not come into her heart. That she not learn its lessons and live in its ways; measure her value by her income; judge others by what they could offer her; work for possessions but neglect relationships. These could not be her. Her mothers would tell her it was a privilege to wear her layers because her layers taught her. Because in holding true to her layers, in holding true to her values, she became more than a human being. She became a human. This her mothers would tell her.

And the mirror looked at her and saw each layer and saw her true self. And the mirror saw that she spent her days believing her layers were her true self. But the layers were not her true self. The layers sat over her but were not truly her. The mirror saw that she pretended and that she was comfortable in this. The mirror saw her drink φραπέ (frappé) and eat γλυκά (sweets). It saw her light a candle at Πάσχα (Easter), travel to Greece for διακοπές (holidays), and dance καλαματιανά at weddings. The mirror saw that these actions were Greek. But the mirror saw that they were not truly her. The mirror saw that her actions were performances; imitations to appease her layers and deceive her self. And if the mirror could speak to her it would tell her that she must let her layers into her heart to be truly Greek. That she must embrace her layers and learn from each and make them a part of herself. That she must truly love and understand her actions. That she must know why she is lighting the candle. That an action without understanding is a masquerade. History. Traditions. Days. She must understand each and she must love each. And her layers would cease to be layers and become her. And she would no longer be pretending. And her image in the mirror would no longer be false. This the mirror would tell her.

And when told all this she would look in the mirror and the reflection she would see would be truly her. And it would be glorious. For her layers would no longer be there. Her true self would stand there. And her self would be proud. Proud of her achievements. Proud of her values. Proud of her culture. And her true self would be glorious.

When we look in the mirror we think that we see ourselves clearly but our reflection is clouded by many things. Past. Perceptions. Emotions. Noise. If we can strip the layers back we will see our true self. And we will see our true self is nothing more than our actions. Our achievements. Our values. Our culture. And we can ask if we like what we truly see. And while our past sits with us, our future is only up to us. Our future is free. And our reflection is a beginning. And then we can become who we truly want to be.

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