You and I are surrounded by human mirrors; we reflect one another through spoken and unspoken compliments and criticism.
We observe one another's less-than-wholesome actions or attitudes and are bothered by them. Sometimes our discomfort is heightened because your action, inaction or attitude reminds me of my own limitations.
My anger is disproportionate to your action because it really speaks more about me than of you. In your eyes I can see the insecurity and doubt that I want so much to hide. There are times when I may reject you because you remind me of the imperfections in myself. And there are times when I strongly want to be with you because you are modeling aspects of the person I want most to be.
We all begin life by mirroring. An infant mirrors the facial expressions and eventually the voice and laughter patterns of its parents. A child may reject a certain food because dad doesn't eat it, or may become excited by particular music because it is the music that makes mom appear happy. We mirror the way others walk, act and react to joy and sorrow, success, failure; how they express — or do not express — emotion.
Mirroring can be beneficial when the mirror is solid and reflects what is as opposed to distortion. A well-lit and properly placed mirror, like a weight scale, will truthfully reflect only what is placed before it. The effects of weight and wear cannot be hidden from the mirror or the scale.
When we truly choose to see what reflects in the mirror, it is our tarnished, fettered and imperfect self. If we are looking for a more glamorous and less truthful reflection we have to go either to the glamour studio or to the tent of mirrors at the circus. And, indirectly, each of these destinations says: "You may appear more perfect and thoughtful than you are," or "You may appear more imperfect or thoughtless than you are."
The poet Maya Angelou has written that "if we all hold on to the mistakes, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistakes between our faces and the mirror."
It is also possible, I believe, to hold too tightly to self-selected images of goodness and perfection that allow no room for the reflective light of the mirror to reach us.
Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk and theologian has suggested: "The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them." I suspect Merton would also agree we can live our lives most honestly when we see the reflected brokenness and incompleteness of the other as ours, too.
In the physical world the reflective ability of a mirror is due to the silver oxidation process used to coat the glass. In the realm of human development, knowing how to understand and integrate what the "mirror" reflects helps us become more content or necessarily discontent with our selves.
The challenge of adulthood, and certainly of middle age and beyond is to allow the light of life to show both the beauty and the blemishes in life's mirror and to embrace the images that lead us toward contentment while acknowledging the discontent that must also be confronted.
The goodness the mirror reveals is the integrity we have brought to it; what is less than goodness is opportunity for the deepest growth.
Albert Micah Lewis is rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City.