There is a story by the great Portuguese writer, Eça de Queiróz, called The Mirror (O Espelho), about a young soldier who comes home on his first leave. His mother gives him the best room which has a large mirror. For the first couple of days, he continues to wear his uniform, and as he passes the mirror, he sees the fine young man in his fine new uniform, reflected back at hm. Then he takes off his uniform and puts on his old clothes. But now, as he passes the mirror, the image is not so clear cut, not so fine, and as the days pass, it grows more and more tenuous, and he begins to feel alarmed.
As we grow, so do our hopes and dreams, and we begin to look for ways to fulfil them. But a dream is a frail raft on which to build our lives; and what if the dream is threatened or changed? Our dreams all come in some way from past experiences, hopes, successes and failures, and all dreams share the same fragile quality. They are not what we are or who we are; they are shifting colours from the paint box of our lives, and we are the canvas upon which the picture appears.
The environment in which we find ourselves affects this greatly, and fields and woods produce an entirely different effect on us, with their unpredictability and constant change, to that of a city, with its familiar sounds and buildings. In the country, we are confronted with another rich world, whose colours flow and change with the days and hours, and whose palette is inexhaustible. For some people, this is disturbing, because it is in some ways so constant, and in others, so changing. We are insulated from most of these changes in a city, even a small city like the one in which I live. But this gives us a space in which we can allow another world, a real one, to occupy our minds and senses. To me, as a country boy, I experience it as a sense of belonging, though I know others do not, as most of us cling to the familiar. We continue to build pictures of ourselves that fit the world we live in, all our lives. But the world we live in does not stay still, and we have to keep accommodating ourselves to the things that happen to us and around us.
As we grow and change, our old clothes wear out, or no longer fit, and we have to find and choose new ones. It is not just the clothes and the person changing, but moment by moment, the whole world around us. Nothing stays still, nothing stays the same. And to confuse things even further, as Robert Frost said a hundred years ago: ‘Most of the change we think we see in life, is due to truths being in and out of favour.’ This was never more true than at the present moment.
But we do not just develop a picture of how we are, but of how we would like to be. Little girls often dream of becoming princesses, and perhaps marrying a prince. I remember a wonderful BBC production of Beauty and the Beast where Beauty kissed the Beast and he turned into a handsome prince, but somehow he was no longer so exciting, and she was clearly disappointed. I remember being amused by this little human touch.
How much of our lives is ruled by our dreams, how we present ourselves and how others see us! As Robbie Burns so wisely said: ‘Would tae guid the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.’
When the young man in the story returns to his family, they see a fine young soldier in a fine new uniform, and so does he in the mirror. But then the clothes change and the man seems to change with them. Which image is the true one, or are any of them?
So what do we do if, like the young soldier, we no longer seem to be that shining presence that we perhaps believe we really are? We either have to somehow rebuild the fabric of the one we thought we were, or do something entirely different. Once, after being the victim of a piece of family warfare that affected me disastrously, I dreamed of a large, shattered statue lying on the ground (I realised it was me) and then saw a small figure crawling out from underneath — the survivor, also me, but much reduced in size. What I needed at the time was a good friend like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who could give me a new heart, like she did with the Tin Man, and courage, which she helped the timid Lion to find. At some time in our lives we all need a Dorothy.
Above one of the great Greek temples is written: ‘Gnothi seauton’, ‘Know thyself’, just as the Buddha advised us. For this self, this quiet awareness, does not depend on our bank account or our worldly powers, but is the awareness of our real nature, which is not dependent on the presence or absence of things and powers, and as the poet Kabir said, ‘has its own wonderful inner music’.
As for the young man in Eça’s story, he goes to the wardrobe, takes out his uniform, and puts it on again. And there is the shining, young soldier again. How wonderful if it were so easy!
You can read more articles by John Aske here.
Image: Mirror, ca. 1680–1700,
German, Danzig (Gdansk).
Dark-stained pine; replaced mirror glass.
Image: Cat at the Door,
by Tessa MacDermot.