It dawned on me recently how ubiquitous mirrors are in my world. There are no fewer than eight different mirrors hanging in my house, which doesn’t count the television, computer, and cell phone screens; microwave oven doors; and interior windows that act like mirrors and cause me often to pause and check myself in them. Is their presence a reflection of my personal vanity? Or could they be something much deeper than that, meaning the outward expression of my need to regularly confirm that I’m actually still here, alive and vital, and not a figure in a dream of mine or someone else’s, or even worse, a ghost no longer among the living?
Whoa! Slow down there, Plato. In the words of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, “Choke me in the shallow waters before I get too deep.”
My grandbabies, who are all between the ages of one and three, love mirrors, and I love watching as they stand, square and tall, in front of one gazing in wonder at themselves and smiling with joy. It’s fascinating to watch them trying to figure out exactly who is this two-dimensional twin staring back at them and mimicking their movements. I especially enjoy when they press their fingerprints or lips against those of their mirrored self.
It all makes me ponder when and why so many of us stop smiling at (much less kissing) ourselves in the mirror and stop appreciating the miracle of our existence, the odds of which ever coming to being were infinitesimally small when all of the factors that had to come together to bring us forth into the world in the first place are considered. I wish we could all be more like The Fonz from the 70s sitcom Happy Days, who gave himself two thumbs up when he looked at himself in the mirror. “Eeeeeyyyyyy!”
It’s funny how mirrors are a bit like people. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more friendly than others. Some we can’t get enough of; others we avoid as much as possible. For example, I’m on fairly good terms with the master bathroom mirror. For the most part, I’m content with the image of myself that greets me there each morning and bids me good night at the day’s close. However, this is probably due to the facts that I only ever turn on the ambient lighting, I’m only half-awake at both times, and I’m usually not wearing my glasses. On the other hand, there’s a mirror near the front door that seems to mock every wrinkle on my face and grey hair on my head. I hate that mirror.
Mirrors are also like people in the way Charles Horton Cooley, the great American sociologist, described them in his Looking Glass Self Theory, which asserts that a person’s self-image is largely determined by observing the others they encounter throughout their day and interpreting the reactions of these others to themselves. In other words, these others act as mirrors in which a person is reflected. If a person concludes that they like what they see in observing others observing them, then they, in turn, are happy with themselves. If, however, they interpret others’ responses as negative, they develop a self image that mirrors the negativity of others. Trust me, that’s must easier to understand than to explain.
I think Cooley was onto something. His theory makes me aware that I have a responsibility when serving as other people’s mirror. I need to be more conscious of how my response to their looking at me will impact their own sense of self. Actually, I need to be aware that they are not so much looking at me as looking for an assessment of themselves and, in turn, I should be kind without diminishing the importance of providing an honest reflection of their current state. As Shakespeare once wrote and Nick Lowe once sang, sometimes we must be “cruel to be kind.” Sometimes, the emperor needs to be made aware that he’s wearing no clothes.
In the song “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake, he uses a mirror as a metaphor for his beloved, whom he sees as “staring back at me,” as his “parallel on the other side,” and as the “other half of me.” The metaphor is a bit schmaltzy and not exactly original, but I appreciate the romantic notion and paradox of two lovers existing as one and becoming less whenever separated from the other.
Unlike my grandbabies, who can’t seem to peer at themselves enough in the mirror, these days I find myself searching less and less for my reflection if not avoiding it outright. Sometimes I don’t even recognize me as me. Instead, I think, “Who is that old dude?” The reason for avoidance is obvious. At my age, one cannot look into a mirror without facing their own mortality and imagining the day when they will no longer appear in anyone’s mirror or as a reflection in anyone’s eyes. (I’m assuming there are no mirrors in heaven, which, by the way, also assumes that there is an afterlife and that I have any reason to believe that I would be welcome in heaven.).
I’m trying hard to accept that the man in the mirror today is, in fact, a version of me different from the me of years gone by and to be okay with what I see. There really are not other worthwhile options, for Ty, the Younger, isn’t coming back, and Ty, the Older, waits for me in tomorrow’s mirrors, and to once again quote Shakespeare, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” after that until I run out of tomorrows.
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