Published on December 7th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks
(Life & Fiction) When a Mirror Is a Window
Snow White’s jealous stepmother asked,
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who is most beautiful in the land?
She never had peace because she was continually comparing herself to everyone else.
The mirrors “speaking” to me never just show me me. They show me the substance producing the reflection as well. If we can let our own opinion integrate or filter that of the other, we can learn to take the insight offered us, while we consider the source.
Playwright David Hare wrote, “Never take advice from someone with no investment in the outcome.”
I would add, consider what type of investment this other has in the outcome: is their goal and delight more in your success or their perceived gain? If those are not mutually sustainable, which ranks their higher priority?
But that is my grown-up self talking. The part that I had to train after age 30 in order to give myself full voting rights—because it wasn’t something that came naturally. For the longest time I didn’t recognize that I was letting others tell me who I am, because at first I liked what I heard and had no need for a different story.
When I was very young, I was the crazy-cute little girl with bouncy blond pigtails and surprising things to say. From age two, adults would listen to me because of the novelty of my vocabulary. I talked to them because I had so much to say, and here were listeners of status.
As I got older, there were the peers who listened to me, who let me direct the games, and so I learned that I was a leader: adored, brilliant, and near-omnipotent (heady stuff for an eight-year-old).
Still older and the friends who reflected leader moved away, replaced by peers who showed only indifference. Over time I was surrounded by busier and busier people, mirrors who made it clear that my words were too frequent and too demanding.
I didn’t understand how I could have changed: I was still full of ideas and discoveries, experiencing—even expressing—deep feelings of joy and compassion.
I had not changed but my mirror had.
People walked by as if my deep, ineffable creations were vampires—un-see-able, or unreal.
At home, my mirror remained more as I remembered it: I was a precocious, strong-willed beauty. But I wondered which mirror was true when the reflections I received were so disparate.
There are those who argue we should be “above” such things as jerks’ opinions of us, but when those jerks are people with power, people you love or want to please, it is far too dismissive to say what they think doesn’t matter.
I don’t think the deepest hunger of the human heart is to have love for one’s self. Rather, it is to be loved. My goal is not to sit in a room or on a hillside and tell myself how much I love myself. My goal is to mean something to the people who mean the most to me.
My hunger is to have somebody big and powerful and important in my life say, “I love you,” and then I will have the confidence that I am loved. When that big and important and powerful person hurts me and humiliates me and beats me down, it creates the deepest and the most excruciating pain I can ever experience.
That’s a quote (emphasis mine) from a book called Pain and Pretending.
These powerful people are what I’ve been calling mirrors. The people who mean the most to us are the people we allow tell us, sometimes give us, who we are.
The paradoxical thing here is that we also have to believe it. The truth about ourselves, I mean: that we have value, and that we can find meaning in life. It is not 100% within the power of another human being to grant us the security we seek, though they can make it easier or harder.
Whatever the way our mirrors have reflected us, we must eventually value ourselves.
What the mirrors told me
For a time I tried to just “be good” and go along, because I thought that’s what peace-loving Christians did. What I didn’t understand was that by diminishing myself, I was leaving my identity-defining up to everyone I perceived as stronger, bigger, more powerful than me.
And with that wonderful intuition God gave me, with the burning core that would not let me forget what or who I am, I continued to twist and squirm in the box I thought I was applauded for living in.
In those in-between years of adolescence and early adulthood, I absorbed many negative messages about myself: I talk too much, I talk too big, people don’t care about what I have to say. I don’t know social protocol. I’m too forceful. I screw up relationships without realizing it. I’m driving people away by being me, and I have no way to know how long *this* person will stick it out, putting up with the me I’m not mature enough to disguise.
All messages about personal rejection, my inter-personal incompetence, and the unreliability of my intuition or instincts.
A new perspective
Then, about three years ago, God began to change that.
The first time I actually noticed was an evening when I went to visit a new mother in the hospital.
Before I arrived, I only knew that the birth had been distressed and that baby along with new-daddy had been flown to the big hospital down south. So new-mama, a military ship-in, was alone in a hospital without any family in town.
We had spent all of five minutes together before this point. Sitting together over the next five or six hours we exchanged a lot of stories. She told about how God had prepared her for this moment, shared her history of standing up to doctors and, secure in her intuitive awareness, even to her own (albeit good) mother.
By the time I left, late at night and so thankful the nurses hadn’t kicked me out when normal visiting hours ended, I was in awe of this new-mama’s strengths. In the space of a few hours, she’d pulled the blinds back from her window and let me look inside her valiant heart.
From a mirror to a window
When I got home, I burbled to my husband about this amazing woman and how much I admired her strength and guts and indomitable spirit, and then it was like the light went on over my head, and the glass changed from a window to a mirror. All these things that I was calling beautiful and admirable in this woman were labeled “ugly” and “abrasive” on my mirror.
The same things.
And I was faced with some choices:
Would I be consistent? Would I call her ugly, or could I finally start to believe I was beautiful?
And because I hate inconsistency, and perhaps more because I could not think her less than beautiful, I opened myself to the possibility that I had been using the wrong labels to rate my reflection.
To respond to this article or to read more about self-image from Amy, see the companion blog post Keep Two Journals.
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Photo by Ben Earwicker of Garrison Photography, Boise, Idaho