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Facing the Mirror (Book Excerpt)

By Mike Renquist
with drawings by Michael Arthur

Preface

On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, certainly startled me when he said:
None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on Sept. 11, yet after America was attacked it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.
This was an incredible use of a metaphor but probably not so challenging to the American people as I might have thought. Because sometime in the last 24 hours or so, you heard someone say, or perhaps you read it:

"Well, I've got to deal with the person in the mirror..." or

"How can you/he/she look at (your/his/her)self in the mirror?" or

"The mirror never lies" or

"You're the spitting image (mirror) of your ___ (dad, brother, sister, whatever)" or

"That behavior is a mirror of society" or

"He/she is a model (mirror) for all of us" or

"The scene reflected the intensity of the feelings."

A mirror is a fairly simple device, a child's first play toy - surely you remember your crib companion - used most often for personal grooming. A mirror is a sheet of clear glass, covered with silver or other elements on one side, so that it reflects an image. A mirror is shiny plastic that casts back a likeness of whatever is in front of it. A mirror could be any polished substance that forms images by the reflection of the rays of light. A mirror is something to be imitated or emulated, modeled. A mirror may be the face of another person you look into and see reflected there disappointment or pleasure. Or…

There's more to a mirror than what first meets the eye. A mirror is a fairly complicated metaphor that straightens up faulty thinking, corrects inappropriate conduct, sharpens goal setting, clarifies values, enhances relationships, deepens identify, secures morals, and enables personal growth. As a metaphor, a mirror is not merely a practical personal grooming device, but a way to understand and reflect upon human behavior, nature itself, and the world beyond. So, this is a small book exploring the metaphor of mirror.

Chapter One
Mere Mirror

Go look in a mirror; the one over the sink in your bathroom will do just fine.

What did you see? Could you really look into your own face and without grimacing, have some face-time with your reflected image? Without fear, could you pass through the smooth surface and gaze into the Really You? Without guilt, could you glare into your own inner world of self? What did you feel? What do you typically feel when you look in a mirror? Have you ever looked in a mirror and turned away in shame? Ever averted your own eyes with a pang of inadequacy? Have you looked in a mirror and talked to yourself, bucked yourself up for "one more day?" "one more try?" Have you ever in the midst of some contemplative gaze, seen some surface blemish and zeroed in on a pimple, or an eyelash gone astray? Did you look at the mirror's surface, the reflection, or do you really see you? Discover anything new?

Perhaps you might want to go and look into the mirror again.

Looking into the Mirror

Sometimes, when I look in a mirror, I don't feel so good. I hurt when I see what I see. At times I feel happy and content with what I see. I've laughed at myself in a mirror, recognizing my own pretentiousness. I've cried in a mirror, but not for long. Seeing myself in a mirror crying brings me out of that cathartic state rather quickly. I've felt shame many times. And guilt. "How could you have been so stupid," I've said that to a mirror more than once. I've cursed myself in front of a mirror. Facing the mirror, I have certainly felt inadequate, unacceptable. Of course, I also shave in front of a mirror daily and once every couple of weeks, , I cut my own hair with electric clippers. That takes two mirrors.

In front of that same mirror I have also felt what I believe it feels like to be loved by God, to see there in that face, that I am loved and can be loving. I've felt real warmth, real affection for what I see, there reflection of God, a gift, and that pushes me. It means I can give a little more than I did before, I can dream a little bigger than I did before, and dare a little stronger than I did before.

And you know what, it is not only when I look into a mirror that I appreciate those things. I can get the same reflection out of a relationship that could be a mirror, or nature, or a character in a story. Many things can serve as mirrors, so that when we hold ourselves up against them, we can sense some of the same things we do when we look into that piece of silvered glass.

Appreciating Mirrors

Mirrors were valuable instruments in the First Century of the Common Era and before. They were probably given as presents and small mirror-like jewels were used for adornment. Mirrors often had a handle of gold or ivory and have been found by archeologists in rooms where dressing probably took place. Such mirrors have been found in burial places of royalty. Documents of Tell El-Armana refer to a gift of 32 mirrors of polished bronze from Egypt by Amenophis IV to Burraburiah and of a silver mirror by the Hittite king.

The evidence suggests that mirrors were rarely used for worship experiences. The Old Testament of the Christian Bible, Exodus 38:8, raises some concern about the use of mirrors in liturgies of the time ("and he made the laver (a basbody> in) of bronze and its base of bronze, from the mirrors of ministering women who served at the door of the tent of the meeting.") but that's minor. The "mirrors of ministering women" were probably accepted as an offering for the making of this basin to be used by the priests in their absolution.

The Hellenistic (Greek) culture made mirrors commonplace, and soon good mirrors made of glass and polished metal were spread throughout civilization. It wasn't until the Fifteenth Century that humankind perfected sheets of glass with silvered elements laminated on one surface. In Victorian times, certain large homes contained psychomantiums, mirrored rooms to summon spirits. Lewis Carroll summoned us to the heights (and depths!) of imagination with his Through the Looking Glass - And What Alice Found There.

Even today, at the borders of civilization, can you imagine the incredulity of a man or woman beholding their image in piece of glass or metal the first time?

While traveling in Ethiopia in the summer of 1966 with a work/education program, I witnessed this kind of amazement. Most of the Ethiopians I met had seen mirrors - I saw many in the countryside as well as the city - but those in the rural area had never seen a Polaroid Camera and its instant images. Many of the adults believed the camera was an "evil machine" that "captured" the image of an individual. On more than one occasion while taking pictures of people in far-flung places in Ethiopia and Kenya, I had fruit and rocks thrown at me. The children seemed not to be bound by such superstition. For them the "instant" picture" became a mirror, and throwing religious taboos aside, they would hold the picture up against their face and ask brothers and sisters to compare. Not surprisingly, the consternation of their parents tempered their delight.

Mirrors are so commonplace today in all parts of the world that perhaps the only way one could observe someone gazing at his or her image for the first time would be to be present when a blind person gains sight or to stumble upon an infant or toddler playing with his or her reflection for the first time.

And what a joy it is to behold an infant beholding his or her image in a mirror. She may laugh, cry, reach out apprehensively, and pat the surface. Probably as early as ten months, however, the child can recognize that this image is not he or she, that it is just that, an image, a reflection, an illusion, an apparition. But what men and women have done in the face of that apparition!

Applying the Mirror

We have applied eye shadows, cakes, creams, razors, combs, perfumes, wigs, brushes, hair-pieces, goops, jellies, liners, mascara, ointments, floss and toothpicks, fingers on pimples, mustache brushes, tweezers, swabs, blowers, and dryers, hats and scarves, mufflers and ties... and never looked beyond the mirror. We have not really seen our Real Selves in the mirror. We have seen the surface image and tried to amend it without actually seeing the depth of our reflection.

We have made love, straightened hems, fixed slips, zippered coats, buttoned shirts, admired our curves, or grunted at the lack of them, and still have not seen the other side of the mirror. We have not seen ourselves because we lack the sight to truly look into that reflection. I believe that there is great truth in looking in a mirror, particularly when we get beyond just looking at the mirror and examine, gaze intently, into the very most-inward parts of our being. I dare suggest, that few of us, left alone with a mirror in a room, could gaze for long and not be struck by the most profound kind of melancholy.

But I also dare say, and I say it boldly: There is not one of us who cannot profit from such an experience. By facing the mirror and observing ourselves, I believe that one can often be struck by a new vision of hope, a new image of caring, at the least, a sense of growth and renewal.

Earlier, I said I could not cry for long while facing a mirror. I don't stay angry for long, either, when I see myself in a mirror. I remember as an angry young man locking myself in a bathroom. I was furious about something of great magnitude, I'm sure. Why couldn't my parents understand me, why didn't I get the part in the play, why didn't she like me. I went straight to the bathroom, the bathroom being the only room with any kind of privacy in the middle-class home of a family of six. Striding into the room, after slamming and then locking the door, I went past the sink and the mirror on one side and threw myself down on the toilet. But being too angry to sit for long, I got up and paced, and then I caught the mirror's reflection. I turned and looked deep into those eyes of anger, and beyond the mere reflection on the surface, I looked deep into me. I remember this sequence as if it was yesterday, I looked beyond the reflection and deep into me, and the anger melted; it went away. I could not stay mad when I looked into the mirror. There was too, too much that I saw there that I did not like.

I walked away but I remembered the reflection.

I call that a rear-view mirror image, it's a form of remembered reflection, and I will talk more about this in chapter three, but let me say this for now: I remembered what I look like when I get angry. I used the memory of that reflection in the mirror to gradually erase that violent, cursing expression of anger from my repertoire of behavior. It didn't happen right away, but I used the remembered reflection to coach myself out of that unproductive behavior. I imagined a coach, guiding me. I could hear him saying, "Hey, remember how stupid you looked when you were throwing things around?" I still get angry, even after all these years, but it is a controlled, and hopefully constructive anger - one that I am not afraid to show, and one that can be relieved. I don't' smash my fists through doors, drive recklessly, throw punches, slap my kids or wife around, or play dirty tricks on the people I don't like at work. My anger is acceptable to what I perceive to be an authentic inner vision of who I really am. With the mirror, I looked deep inside me, saw behavior that wasn't me, and resolved before the mirror, to do away with it. I remember that reflection. My anger is an expression of me: it is part of me. I can be angry and look myself squarely in the eye. I'm not afraid of me when I get angry.

Now it's your turn. Are you really a "hating" person? What does the reflection in the mirror say? Try this exercise now if you can. You are going to look into a mirror. If not a mirror, imagine this in your "mind's eye".

(By the by, have you ever thought about what is your "mind's eye"? That's the spot in your brain, roughly an inch and half in from the outside surface of your nose, directly between your eyes. Now, I don't know, you may be near-sighted or far-sighted or have a stigmatism or something, but it's there, your mind's eye, when you can see things, dream things, even with your eyes closed.)
For years, I have taught presentation skills in the corporate classroom, and as part of the training process, each student is videotaped making a presentation, both before the training and then again after. I ask my students, prior to reviewing that first benchmark video, "How many of you have seen yourself on video making a presentation? I ask this because the first thing you're going to say, when I ask you to look into a mirror, is, 'oh, I look so fat!' or 'I really am bald!' or 'I shouldn't have worn that dress.' I want you to try to see beyond the surface. See and hear what is it that you are saying, how you say it and what you are doing as you say it." That's what I'm asking from you as you move in front of that mirror.

So now, you are ready. You are going to look at yourself in a mirror. You won't be doing this "right" - you'll be "off track" - if you immediately start plucking your eyebrows. Well, I mean "off track" from something you could learn here. Now read this whole passage in italics first, describing the exercise and then "go" to a mirror.

Look into the mirror frontally, straight on. Forget about that wrinkle! Try looking straight into your eyes from a distance of a foot to 18 inches or so. Capture in your mind a time in your recent history when you were angry, really mad. Re-live it. Remember what somebody did to you, the things you thought, how you may have planned to get even, the feelings you had below the neck, your posture, the rate of breath, the whole experience. Do it now and then come back...providing you didn't go out and punch somebody in the nose.
Did you do it? Did you find your breathing more rapid, more strident, more severe? Did your nostrils flare a bit and your teeth clinch and grind? Did your eyebrows burrow closer to your eyes? This is anger, beautiful anger.

Anger is one of four universally recognized facial expressions. That is, anywhere in the world, when anyone sees your angry face, they would recognize it as anger. Can you guess the other three facial expressions usually thought to be recognized in any culture? (In case you're still angry from the exercise, thinking of something else will help break the mood.) Sadness. Happiness. And fear.

When I asked you to step into your anger facing the mirror, how long could you stay angry? Could you keep that hatred for long? I have done this exercise many times and find that I cannot keep my anger long. Once my mind goes from manufacturing the anger to observing the reflection of my anger, a switch flips in my head and I can't be angry any more. If that's true, we can flip that switch for any of our feelings. That's an important point we'll come back to later in this book.

Time Out With the Mirror

When my son Christopher was six - some twenty-five plus years ago - he had a problem with anger. In the course of finding constructive ways to deal with that, I discovered that he couldn't look at himself in the mirror and stay angry. So part of his "time-out" was to be spent in front of a hallway mirror. Sometimes he would refuse to look at the mirror or try to run away. It was as if he knew he was choosing the ugly feelings and the mirror would confront that. But sometimes he would laugh. He would see himself and know, almost immediately, that the anger he had chosen wasn't working.

I remember one instance in particular. Christopher overheard his mother and I talking about going to the store. Quite often when one of us went to the store, one of the kids went too. They enjoyed the experience, and for the most part, we did too. On this day in question, Christopher's mother was stretched in a number of ways, not the least of which was that I had chosen to come home for lunch, was a little late, and had not chosen to save very much energy for dealing with my being late, and we exchanged a few "pleasantries" no doubt. She and I both decided that since I was free at the time and could stay a bit longer, she would run off and get what we needed for a dinner that night. Our youngest son was down for a nap already. But Christopher was within hearing distance, playing with some blocks in the den, and declared that he, as usual, wanted to go to the store. His mother motioned to me that she wanted to be alone. I said fine, and would take it from there, and she went ahead and left. I took a second's detour to grab the mail and sat down on the floor by my son, now feverishly putting away his "Legos" so he could go.
I said, "Christopher, let me play with you. Mommy has already gone to the store, because she wanted to be alone for a little while." Now that was my talking straight on, leveling. Isn't that what all the books say, to "use as few words as possible"? I even provided an alternative, and yet only for distraction, activity? Everything was done according to the books, to the theories, just right? Wrong. At least that day...
"She left?!?!" he cried.  

He looked at me with incredulous eyes, and then, just that quick, he was out the door - mail and Legos flying, his "super sneaks" blazing. (That's what he called his canvas shoes) He made it through the laundry area to the back door where I caught up with him, as she was starting the car outside.

I could have caught her and asked her to take Christopher. I could have made one of those plaintive faces to mime my request. Instead I picked him up, took him into the kitchen, where he could see the car leaving and said. "There is nothing you can do. She is leaving. She wanted to go to the store by herself this time."

He kicked out at me, lashed with his hands and lurched with his head, "Dumb!" That was the word of the week. "Dumb mommy! Mean mommy! I want to go to the store!" All delivered with an accompanying wail, of course.

"Not today, Topher. She's gone" I said as I put him down, and added, since he had kicked me, "and I can't allow you to hurt me."

He began kicking the cabinet. "Dumb...stupid." That was last week's word.

"Christopher, if you are going to just stand there and kick the cabinet then I am going into the other room. I hope you can choose to come play with me."

"I won't and you're dumb!"

"Christopher it hurts me that you think I am dumb, but I am still going into the other room."

As I left, he threw open the back door and ran into the yard with "I'm going to go away and never come back..."

This is why I remember this event. Sitting there for the first time in my life as a parent wondering out loud …"Could he? Would he?" A six-year-old going on sixteen? He could. He would. I went after him. It was raining.

Catching up to him was easy. Hauling him into my arms was a little harder, so I threw him up on my shoulders, something he normally just loved, but not today. "Christopher," I said, still controlling my anger, (I don't like the reflection of me dragging a kid with one arm and spanking him with the other. And the reason I don't like that image of me is not really because some neighbor might see me. It really is that, deep down inside, I know that image is not authentically me.) "I am sorry. I cannot let you express your anger this way. Let's go back inside." He didn't really have much choice about it.

I carried him back inside, in my arms now, and set him down this time in the den by the legos and I started building a truck. He lay there and cried, and after a few minutes, reached over with his foot and struck down truck.

"Christopher, I can think of a more constructive way to express anger."

"I don't care, I'm mad!" And he thrust his tear-stained, trembling face into mine as he screamed that last word three inches from me.

"Christopher, I'm sorry that you felt so lost that you want to run away. I care about you and your feelings. You are very special and so is mommy. She just needed some time to be by herself." "I don't care," followed by another kick to the pile of blocks, scattering them everywhere.
"Christopher, come with me." He sat there. I picked him up and he went limp in my arms. Why do kids think by going limp into the floor that we parents can't pick up the same weight as when they raise their hands up to us with the expectation to be lifted up? Do they think they can melt into the floor to get away from us? Do kids have cognizance that by lowering themselves into the floorboards that we do indeed have further to bend over to pick them up and it really is harder? Fortunately he didn't fight me, because then I would have had to deal with the picture of myself, a grown adult, restraining a six-year-old and yes, I've done that before, haven't you? Fun

I picked him up, trying not to laugh at the limp child trick, and set him down in front of the hall closet door, which had a beautiful leaded, full-length mirror. Sitting cross-legged, facing the mirror, I put him on my lap and gently said,

"Christopher, I accept your anger. I know that it makes you angry to think that Mommy has left without you to go to the store, but that was our decision. I have tried to respond to your needs and am even offering to play with you, but you refuse to do anything but choose bad feelings. Now I want you to look into the mirror and tell me, what do you see?"

He turned slightly and glanced at his reflection and then up at me. He burrowed his face into my shoulder. So I said again, "Look into the mirror. What do you see?"

Once more he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, than turned toward the image, and you could see his frown fade, the lower lip loose, and then his mouth stretch, ever so hesitantly into a grin. He looked at me in the mirror, and said, to the reflection, "But Daddy..."

"I know Christopher, I know," and I gave him a heart-felt hug and off he went to play.

Once I was asked in a management development course that I was leading, "is it okay to manipulate people?"

Now that was a tough question, so I asked the class, "do any of you have children?" Most of the participants raised their hands. "Have you ever manipulated your children?" Without an exception, all of the people who had admitted to having children raised their hands, plus some others who hadn't raised their hands at my first question. "So, I guess it's 'okay' to manipulate people," I concluded.

I wish I could manipulate people into seeing the power of the metaphor of the mirror. Similar to this magic I worked with my own child, if I could just construct a giant, portable mirror in front of people, I truly believe we could live happier, more productive, more sane, stable and sober lives. If I could beguile people into seeing the mirrors all around them by which to realize their own authentic selves, oh how much more centered and responsible people would be. And if I could captivate people to give both credence and cognizance to what they reflect into society and onto others, what an incredibly diverse, unbelievably imaginative and intentionally loving world it would be.

If you enjoyed this excerpt from Facing the Mirror, you'll enjoy the rest of the book even more. Click Here to order your copy now.