In films, a first-person perspective is rare. Perhaps this is because it’s so difficult to produce. So instead, we enjoy the third-person standard, mere voyeurs into fantasy lives and stories. But in our own lives, this is reversed. Unlike the audience of a third-person film, we rarely observe ourselves. We see ourselves when we most want to, perhaps, while taking selfies or examining ourselves in the mirror. We may even see ourselves when taking quiet moments, introspecting the relationships between ourselves and our friends. But for the moments when life is in motion, and we can afford reflection most, we lose sight of ourselves.
I’d thought about this for some time, and the effects it had on me. What if I was forced to constantly reflect, to be pulled away from the blur? Would I notice my strange habits, if I had any, and become terribly self-conscious of them? Would the same effect come from observing my already-known habits, but from a third-person view? These questions held me. So I made a world of mirrors.
It started off easily. I opened my social media to see how other people lived their lives, or what they thought was interesting. And I saw myself, on my bed, smiling and feeling genuine vicarious happiness for others’ fortune, and sadness at whatever slight misfortunes the brave were willing to share. It was clear my empathy was in the right place. I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t stand to dream, because rather than dream at all, I just watched myself lie in place. It is interesting to see one’s eyes flutter as he falls to deep sleep, and the occasional involuntary twitch, but there isn’t much more. If others could have experienced this detached-body-phenomenon, we’d have a phrase by now describing this boring sleep in a way similar to the phrase, “like watching grass grow.” So I got up, and sang in the shower. I talked to myself. I’m not crazy, I swear—I know there isn’t any distinct entity to whom I talk. But still, it is a quite strange thing to witness from another perspective. The strangest and most unnerving part was this: I’d get flashes of anxiety and say the names of cute girls I’d met, almost as some childish coping mechanism. “Anya!” And when I was happier, sometimes I’d do the same, only in a more loving tone.
I had work that day. From the outside, it wasn’t obvious I was an anxious person. I was glad to see myself greet others quite charismatically and with some air of effortless chic. I looked competent. It was obvious I cared about what others thought of me, however. I’d catch myself, and others caught me scanning the room for impressions after any event. I scanned faces to validate my style, I did it when I felt I made any small gaffe, and when anyone else said something interesting. Sometimes I’d try to tell myself to stop, but I’d do it anyway. But no one minded. It seemed like common behavior for everyone, now that I took the time to notice. Other reflections only told me what I already knew, and from a perspective I’d already thought about. I was still single. I feared looking unsuccessful. I ate too much sugar.
Over time, the reflections intensified. I started seeing not just what was in my own space at my time, but what was happening in other places, sometimes in different times. Having lunch with a friend two days later, I saw reflections of the conditions under which my foods were prepared and shipped. The carrots looked well cared-for and farmed by honest, content people. The potatoes were also well cared for, but were picked by people who were angry that day. It looked hot. Then came my steak. I saw a cow beat by impatient workers. Half its face was beat off until an eye was missing and it was just open flesh. I saw other cows watching and pleading. And one cow—my cow—was loaded into a dirty, efficient machine to have its neck slit while others waited for their turns. I heard them plead, and I could see … something in their eyes. And I felt sick. The most incredible thing was that reflection didn’t show me anything I didn’t already know. I think many of us have a sense for the pain and cognition of which animals are capable. And we suspect the industries that handle them might be cruel. We just brush it off. I didn’t eat that meal.
How meaningful is knowledge if we never act on it, until seeing it up close for our senses to emotionally tear at us? How valid are emotions if despite our prior knowledge and reason, they compel us to change all our reasoned judgments on a whim? On one hand, reason and knowledge seem useless and weak. They delude us into telling ourselves we can inform ourselves of sole theory to solidify our judgments. On the other hand, emotions seem crass and desperate, screeching to bloody our ears and minds into senseless submission. And I am left in the realization that each faculty is fragile and delusional. “No,” but one might say, “it is the bondage of the two that make us human, something stronger.” But what can come of two fragile, delusional partners? Surely not any duo to which anyone would commission an important task. If we are their bondage, then we are an inconsistent and volatile partnership, which tells itself to travel steadily on the self-righteous path of reason, and yet constantly veers to chase the closest mirage.
I felt overwhelmed by the reflections. I had a drink and lay down. I checked my social media. Some of my friends were at a local protest for racial equality. Around the world, others protested for sexual equality. “At least now I can be as woke as they are,” I mused to myself. And true, I saw reflections of the recent roots of racial oppression, and the history of male dominance. But the problem was: I saw similar phenomena for all other groups, too. Whatever quality you could imagine, by which to divide the population—age, income, race, sex, and so on—I saw hardships for each group in its division. Even within traditionally privileged populations like whites, I saw reflections of sub-groups that lived well, and others that were historically poor. I was too woke. Everyone seemed to have it tough. Surely, this was not an excuse to start chanting “all lives matter,” was it? I felt like protesting for every possible group I could think of, for its own inflicted plagues. And then after the reflections seemed too many to remember, I forgot the groups, and they faded into a blur. And I felt pity, and love, and awe for all of humanity.
The ability to see oneself from a third-person perspective is both enlightening and frightening. I’m not sure it ever taught me anything I didn’t already know or suspect. But it manipulated my emotions, in a way, to make me feel differently about these things. A man can know what a rose looks like. He can read about its qualities of being waxy in texture and delicate in construction, and relate these senses to waxy and delicate objects he has already experienced. And the thought may bring him no feelings. But having placed a live rose in his hands, he may feel curiosity and contentment. It is somewhat pathetic to have our senses lead us in this way. But it at least feels enlightening to have our senses experience for the first time what our thoughts have known. Their conjunction exists in the world of mirrors.