The general consensus is that, on average, people spend about an hour a day looking in the mirror. This can be adjusted, of course, when you factor in the time spent glancing in mirrors while driving and the fact that there are mirrors everywhere.
They are used in service stations and other public restrooms, as wall accents or decorations, and we can add into the mix other reflective surfaces such as pools of water, etc. And when we look into one of these numerous reflective surfaces we see our reflection; and instantly, without a conscious effort, we recognize ourselves.
Science says humans are on a very short list (including bottle-nosed dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees and magpies) of animals with the ability to do this. Rover, for instance, will see a dog — but he doesn’t see Rover. This ability is part of a long list (joining opposable thumbs, art and YouTube) of things which seem to be relatively unique to the human animal. In an article for Psychology Today, David Ludden, PhD, discusses this and the relationship of the concepts of mind and self. But beyond the instant ability to recognize ourselves in reflections and assorted photographs spanning years or decades, what do we really see? Or rather who do we really see?
The answer to that question can be strikingly different with each person who looks; if they truly look, that is.
There are some people who are narcissistic, of course, and are enamored with their own reflection and the beauty they see shining back at them — interesting word, narcissistic, by the way. Comes from an old Greek legend about a young demigod named Narcissus, who was too beautiful to be bothered with anyone. A nymph named Echo fell in love with and was spurned by him, resulting in her pining away until all that remained of her was a lonely whisper — an echo — of herself. Then, as happened in so many myths, a vengeful god (Nemesis, Goddess of Retribution and Revenge) got involved. The result was that Narcissus ended up being mesmerized by his own reflection in a pool and pined away because he could not have himself. Greeks were big on the whole “moral of the story” back in the day.
Fortunately, most people aren’t quite as bad as Narcissus. No, the truth is most people don’t really see themselves at all when they look into the mirror. Oh, they do see parts of themselves, depending upon why they are looking. We brush our teeth and look to see the results. We comb our hair so we don’t look like a background actor in a 1980s alt-rock music video; we shave (sometimes), and we wash our faces, etc. But we so rarely spend time really looking at the total picture all those activities are designed to arrange. We know the reflection is us, but who exactly is the “us” staring back when we look into a mirror?
The question goes beyond our physical appearance as well, so much so that it has become a metaphor for self-examination. On the rare occasions when the hectic pace of modern life allows us to think about our own thoughts and emotions, we are said to be “reflecting” on our lives. And the question in this instance as well remains, who is the person revealed in the metaphorical mirror? A difficult answer to find to be sure, made more difficult by the fact that most of us spend far less than an hour a day looking at our internal mirrors and what they might reveal.
Life doesn’t require a deep psychoanalysis on a daily basis, and it isn’t that we should necessarily doubt or question every single thing we think or do. But we get caught up in the “busy” of life and sometimes we simply run to whatever makes us happy or comfortable, and run from anything that brings on the sadness and discomfort. This, more often than not, becomes the pattern and we simply behave in this manner out of a comfortable sense of habit. And when a pattern is disrupted such as during the current global pandemic, we feel lost. And ironically, we miss the things we might not even have known why we enjoyed.
Now is the time to brush some of the cobwebs off our internal mirrors and see just what they show us. Is it possible we were like Narcissus (at least a little) and were so wrapped up in the assumption of our own importance that we ignored the valuable things — not to mention people — in our lives? Or were we more like poor Echo, and spent our days chasing an idealized concept of perfection that was forever beyond our reach? Both are possibilities, and with the human animal it is even likely we have been a bit of both depending upon the situation.
But not everything reflected back at us is bad or will even need to be changed. In fact, there is quite a bit in there that is good in most of us. We just need to learn how to see it, see us, for who we truly are. And don’t be concerned if looking inside seems overwhelming at first. Sometimes problems, concerns and the necessities of life can be like a nearly overwhelming shroud of shadow and darkness, especially during dark times. Just remember one very important thing about mirrors, metaphorical or otherwise; they are extremely good at reflecting and magnifying light.