Brett Clark uses this quote to kick off a post about reflection on SmartBlogs. He says he can't imagine not stopping during the day to reflect and learn from what has happened.
I envy Brett. "Not taking time to reflect is like going through the day without ever looking in the mirror," he writes. But who has time to look in the mirror? I'm not talking about being too busy to reflect, which is true of many and partly behind the boom in mindfulness meditation classes. I'm talking about not having the mental time to really understand yourself. It can take years of dysfunction and putting up with things, not to mention an analyst's couch, for most people to not only look in the mirror but comprehend the person looking back. Who could withstand such scrutiny on a daily basis?
Self-help books abound and lives do change, it's true. But it takes a willingness to face unpleasant truths and the determination to do something about them. Knowing that the cure is sometimes worse than the disease, where does that leave most people? Passing mirrors and only taking a quick glance, enough to know that you're still there but not much more.
I was struck by the Kierkegaard quote today because of its wry truth, that the story of our life can only be told after it has unfolded. We can influence its direction consciously, but we cannot know the outcome of our efforts, no matter how we try. I saw an interview on The Daily Show last night with Questlove, a hip hop artist who wrote an autobiographic history of hip top (with the punny title, Mo Meta Blues) in which he let his manager contradict, via footnotes, every story he tells about himself. The self-awareness that his own version of his life might not be only subjective but flawed, is, IMO, to be admired. Don Marquis reflected the same self-cynicism when he wrote in the opening to his autobiography, "Everything written in this book actually happened, and if it didn't it should have." (my paraphrase)
In Sarah Polley's new film, Stories We Tell, she engages her recently discovered birth-dad in a debate about who has the right to tell the story of her mother's affair with him. He thinks it should be him, since he was there, while she thinks it should be everyone who knew of it or was remotely impacted. She prevails (it's her film) but is aware that by offering everyone's perspective, she is really offering her own, which is necessarily compiled of the kind of hearsay evidence her dad derides. I can't say who's right, but I can say I preferred experiencing her story, in which he is a peripheral character, rather than the one he would have told, in which he would have been the main event.
I guess my point is that we are all the main event in our own lives, but that doesn't necessarily give us perspective on it. To look in the mirror and really see yourself would be to see everyone who knows you there as well, the way Harry Potter sees his dead parents standing beside him in the mirror at Hogwarts. Because as Vygotsky knew, we are not islands in the stream but also the water that passes by and the other islands both downstream and up. Children recognize themselves in a mirror at age 2 or so, but that isn't the beginning of self-knowledge, it's the beginning of knowledge of oneself as an object. The objective and subjective perspectives are often hard to reconcile without the input of our social networks. The "It will get better" movement for gay teens is based on this social function, for instance, in response to many suicides who did not understand this underlying fabric of human connectivity.
The truth is we are social animals whether we even like other people or not. Our capacity to control our choices or even see ourselves as others see us is limited. Michael Jackson wrote, "If you want to make the world a better place just look at yourself and make a change." As brilliant as he was, he struggled to follow his own advice. The man in the mirror is a conundrum most of us cannot penetrate. The best we can often do is live with our foibles, put on our game face and hope that the story that is told, in retrospect, as Kierkegaard notes, is a good one.