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Mirror, mirror on the wall

Betty Firth
Posted 7/7/21

I have been musing about human beings and their seeming inability to get along, not exactly a new topic for me. However, some of what I have read, thought about, and even passed on here in the past, …

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Mirror, mirror on the wall

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I have been musing about human beings and their seeming inability to get along, not exactly a new topic for me. However, some of what I have read, thought about, and even passed on here in the past, came back through my thought tunnels with a different angle, which made me laugh and moan at the same time.
This thread goes back a long ways: My freshman year in college I had signed up for a philosophy class, Great Philosophical Systems, on the poor advice of my so-called advisor, who had just met me and knew nothing of my inclinations or abilities. It was supposedly a 100 level course, but the reason the advisor suggested it, and I agreed, was that I wanted four hours and most were only three. It also fulfilled the math requirement for graduation; the University of Colorado apparently recognized that math and philosophy both use logic, so that was good enough for them.
I hadn’t wanted to avoid math; quite the opposite. In high school I had been in fast-track math classes, but my comprehension hit the skids when I got to solid geometry and trigonometry my junior year. I really tried, asked for help from my excellent, devoted math teacher, who was sincerely excited about math and very willing to help, but it still eluded me. So I did not take any math my senior year, feeling like a failure. However, through a quirk of test construction and diverse brain functions, I was a good test-taker, so I scored very well in the math section of the SAT. I explained all this when I met with the advisor and asked if I could take some less advanced math so I could really come to understand it. He said I couldn’t take those classes for credit; that it would be perceived that I was just going for an easy A. Hence, I ended up in a four-hour class that I was absolutely unprepared for. I couldn’t have told you what “philosophy” meant, and I came out of the first lecture dazed.
A guy in the class asked if I’d like to have coffee, and he shared that he had taken 12 hours of philosophy in summer school before his freshman year just for fun. I knew then that I was in for a world of hurt. Naive 17-year old that I was, I didn’t realize that I could drop the class. It was torture; the lecture was right after lunch, and I often fought to stay awake and often lost. It was like the professor was speaking Urdu. During the required tutorials, I would bury my head behind my books to avoid being called on or noticed in any way. I stayed up three nights in a row at the end of the semester to pump out two term papers rife with B.S. I squeaked by with a D and was grateful for it, when in my previous life, I would have been mortified with a B-. However, I did glean some pearls of wisdom from the philosophy nut that I have carried with me through life.
He asked, “What are three things that you dislike about other people?” When I answered, he said, “Those are aspects of yourself that you dislike the most.” That was our only interaction, but his words laid the foundation for a core of understanding about myself and others during the rest of my life. When I’m being objective, I recognize that when I’m annoyed by or critical of another person, I can almost always identify some aspect of what’s going on as reflecting one of my less desirable traits of which I am not proud. Having this self-awareness has not saved me from being judgmental, but it does mean I have at least the inner honesty to recognize the mirror and feel some embarrassment about not catching it quicker, as in before feeling the judgement. Rarely does it slip by me…my awareness does not let me off the hook.
I have relayed that philosophy nerd’s questions on to others through the years. It certainly wouldn’t be news for those who delve into self-help, psychology, and “discovering the inner you” books. For example, who has not heard the admonition, “In order to love (forgive) anyone else, you have to love (forgive) yourself first.” How many of us function like we really understand that? It’s the mirror! How little we want to see that reflection. In spite of the fact we know the undesirable characteristics intimately, because we embody them, we will still project outward and criticize others for the same shortcomings.
Annie Lamott, author of fiction and non-, advises would-be writers that they probably don’t have to worry too much about people recognizing themselves in stories if the writer just changes some key attributes. She tells a story of a friend she used as a model for a character in one of her books who was always negative, saying that she could resent the sun on a beautiful day. Her friend read the book and said, “You know that character who resents the sun?” Annie waited for the anger to follow, but her friend said, “I know someone just like that.”
What I’m seeing now is that the mirror may be at the heart of our differences, and I don’t see how we can find our way out of this house of mirrors. Many wise people say we have more in common than we have differences, and we just need to recognize that and find the common ground. But how do we get there? The joke may be that the common ground is not only our desire for happiness, world peace, and a good future for our children, but also our shared not-so-admirable characteristics, such as stubborn self-righteousness, and we sure don’t want to see or admit that we share them with someone whose values appear to be the opposite of ours.
I just finished reading “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer, a well-documented, beautifully-written novel about a Jewish family in Hungary in the 1930’s and 40’s. The atrocities of human beings against others when prejudice and fear are sanctioned, and the victims’ incredible will and ability to survive, even helping others, through horrendous torture and deprivation are equally stunning portrayals of human nature.
I have heard left-wingers and right-wingers use exactly the same words to describe each other. I am still searching for a way to have an authentic, non-explosive conversation with people who disagree with me heartily. I’m taking a course called Compassionate Communication to help me figure that out. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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