The Man in the Mirror
By Don Staheli

The story is told of a man who was asked to deliver an important address to a prestigious audience. For him, it was a most significant opportunity to convey what he considered to be a vital message to a group of people who would be greatly benefited in hearing it.

As he gave the talk, he sensed a certain uneasiness in the audience. He couldn’t seem to capture their full attention. Some let their gaze wander about the room, others looked down at their feet, and a few seemed lost in their day planners.

So many were focusing on anything but him that he became more animated in his presentation in an attempt to win their interest. He raised his voice, he gestured more broadly, he even tried to be funny, but got nowhere. The harder he tried, the fewer people who seemed to be listening, and some of them were even smiling at him in a curious way.

At the end of the speech, he felt like a miserable failure. People were courteous but would not engage him in conversation or show much interest in discussing the merits of his presentation. The audience quickly dissipated, and the frustrated speaker made his way to the rest room near the meeting place.

As he entered the rest room, he happened to glance in the mirror. To his great dismay, the man who looked back at him in the glass presented a most humorous sight. The tie he had tucked behind the top button of his shirt to avoid any spillage at lunch was still crammed into its protective position. In his anxiety over the speech, he had failed to notice that he looked less like a distinguished lecturer and more like an unmade bed.

No wonder the audience didn’t want to look at him. He groaned and in dejection said out loud to no one in particular, “If only I had looked in a mirror before I got up to speak! Why didn’t someone tell me?” An opportunity was lost for want of a clear and honest reflection.

Though that particular story is most likely fictional, many people have suffered similar experiences because no one was kind enough to let them know about some minor problem that rendered them almost completely ineffective. From a crooked tie to a tooth adorned with spinach to some sort of behavior that is out of place for the setting, we all occasionally suffer from some form of temporary dishevelment. All it takes to set us straight is someone who will hold up a virtual mirror and verbally reflect their own view of the matter so we can correct the little deficit. But most people are unwilling to point out the problem.

Like sponges, we tend to absorb what we see in another person, unwilling to let loose of our observation and fearful to mention something that obviously needs a little fixing. We seem to be more concerned about ourselves and how we might be thought of in the situation than we are of the poor, uninformed person who will ultimately learn of his or her misfortune. At that point, long after we might have been helpful, the individual will likely feel embarrassed and perhaps even betrayed by those who could have saved the day and didn’t. Perhaps there are too few mirrors in the world and too many sponges.

It is interesting to note the difference between the function of a mirror and that of a sponge. The sponge is designed to soak up and retain whatever comes its way. It releases its contents only when someone puts the squeeze on it and it is forced to let go. A mirror, on the other hand, is built to reflect what it sees, to offer back a true representation of all it is offered. Without coercion, a mirror can provide real and immediate feedback, usually limited solely by the inclination of the viewer to accurately assess the image.

Mirrors can, however, become addictive. There is a temptation to self-appraise frequently with a glance in the glass of another person’s eye. Unchecked, this can become an obsessive need to examine our position constantly and to gauge our worth by the assumed valuation of others. This creates a serious risk of a confused and ever-shifting sense of reality.

It is important to remember, also, that we may come across people who are only too willing to offer their candid opinion of how things are. Such people generally consider themselves to be frank and open and honest, really “telling it like it is.” But their viewpoint may be warped and skewed by selfishness, jealousy, or misunderstanding. The image they offer may be no more accurate than that of a fun-house mirror and should be taken no more seriously. We wouldn’t comb our hair or judge the look of our smile by focusing on the slithering, wavy image of the circus looking glass or the bulging, bloated reflection in the carnival midway mirror. Nor should we pay undue attention to the false likeness by which some would have us judge ourselves. If the image portrayed by someone else just doesn’t seem to fit, we ought to set aside our fears of the truth, seek out a trusted confidant, and test out the possibilities with a second opinion.

I will never forget, though it happened when I was just a young boy, the look on the face of a fine man when I revealed to him the unfortunate criticism of a thoughtless gossip. He was not angry with me, the simple-minded message bearer, nor was he upset with the one who spoke unkindly behind his back. But even now I can sense the way he focused on the untruth and, with a choking gulp, swallowed the lie. Subsequent events proved he had fed upon many misrepresentations of himself until he could no longer see the real man, so good and of such great value. Oh, the harm of a long-term poisoning of one’s self-image!

As we develop our ability to offer a helpful reflection to those around us, it is good to grow, also, in our sense of balance. Wisdom and experience dictate when to absorb in the manner of a sponge and when to hold up the mirror of personal observation. Too much of either one can be equally damaging. When we have honed our interpersonal skills and are motivated by love and a real desire to help, we will know just how much to hold and the right amount to show. We will then become an invaluable asset to those around us.

People who truly seek the well-being of those who walk with them through life will learn by love to give what is needed to make the trek more pleasant and productive. Thus will the joy of the passage increase.

2006 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.