“Whoa! What a handsome man!” The words come from my wife and I know what to do. Take a moment. Enjoy it. Take the win. But then there is the pull of the mirror. Is it true? The mirror will tell the truth, right?
I know that I should avoid the mirror, but then there I am. And staring back is a short, scrawny guy with glasses, somewhat wild, increasingly gray hair and decreasingly smooth skin, and a goofy hat that makes his already thin face look even thinner. The momentary boost from my kind wife deflates from that one glance in the mirror.
But there are two mirrors. One is made of glass. The other is made of flesh and blood. Strangely, the mirror made of glass is the fickle one. There are occasions when the man who appears in that mirror is handsome and smart and competent. There are times, the vast vast majority of times, when he’s average, neither good nor bad, just there. And, of course, there are times when he looks as I just described.
If I want a mirror that will always reflect me back in my best light, the flesh and blood mirror is more reliable. Even if she looks and thinks, “He looks so odd in that funny hat,” the flesh and blood mirror knows how to stay silent in such moments or, at least, deliver the news with love and laughs. The person I see reflected back in that second mirror is usually better than the person I see in the glass mirror.
In my years of being a single adult, I had just the glass mirror. That mirror could say, “Not doing too bad.” It had its good days. But most often, especially if chips were on the table, like if I had found someone I was interested in dating or otherwise impressing, the glass mirror would say something more along the lines of, “No, she’s not interested.” The glass mirror can be cruel.
These thoughts come to me after 28 years with my wife, but also in the wake of two niece’s weddings last summer and fall. At Julia’s wedding, the first of the two, I told her that marriage was transformative. She laughed and said she didn’t feel transformed yet, having been married for an hour or two at that point. But of course I did not mean that getting married is transformative. I meant that being married year after year to someone who always has your interests at heart is transformative. And sadly, being married year after year to someone who does not have your interests at heart is no doubt also transformative, just not in a good way.
Years and years of seeing yourself as reflected back by the glass mirror takes years and years to undo. Some people do it through therapy. Some people try to drink that image away. Some of us are lucky to have someone who sees the best in us and to have that person close to us day after day after day for years on end. And most importantly of all, to have that person make a daily effort to reflect back your very best image. That person, that mirror, who stands there reflecting back at you over the years slowly works a transformation, a slow undoing of some, though of course not all, of the work of the glass mirror. It’s a slow work. For the first 10 years, you might not even know it’s happening. For the first 20 years, you might still not understand how that transformation, the calm and peace and confidence, finds its way into all your friendships and work and life in general.
But slowly, eventually, it seeps in. Slowly, with time and effort and constant reinforcement, you start to see yourself as you appear in the other mirror. And even more slowly still, you start to understand that how you look in this second mirror is different but no less real. In a way that is hard to describe and explain to someone just beginning on that journey, the slow and steady accretion of effects from the reflection of that second mirror is transformative.
And finally, the corollary to that: we also have a daily choice about what transformation we hope to effect when we are the mirror reflecting back at the person we care about. Those small choices add up too.