Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

By | December 14, 2013

The word reflection has two primary meanings – to see ourselves as in a mirror, and also to look inward in a contemplative way.[1] In my own search for meaning, I’ve found the two to be intimately connected.

Philosophers (particularly the existentialist ones like Heidegger and Sartre) believe it’s impossible to know ourselves apart from being in relationship. The existentialists teach it is by getting feedback from others about who we are (mirror reflection) that we can then truly look inward to contemplate our being (contemplative reflection). “By linking ourselves (who can’t be very objective) with others (who can be more so), we gain access to ourselves.”[2] Therefore, the only way I can truly come to know myself and create any sense of meaning is by being in relationship with others.

I think this in large part why I’m so driven to find a group to fit in with – a group that shares my worldview and experiences. This thirst for identifying with a group manifests every weekend during football season here in Oregon, as in Ducks versus Beavers. Or, Packers versus Bears. It goes on further into Democrats versus Republicans. Protestants versus Catholics. MSNBC versus Fox.

The reality is what you and I are really looking for is to discover is ourselves. We align with a group that reflects back to us the we we want to be.

I first met Billy when he was a patient at the hospital. He was affable, gravelly voiced, and full of stories. Most patients I meet in the hospital are not too eager to spend time with a chaplain. Not Billy. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me. As soon as I introduced myself he said, “Praise the Lord! I’m a Christian. I love Jesus with all of my heart! How about you?” During the visit, Billy told me his body was falling apart. His kidneys, his heart, his lungs—nothing was working right. So it was no surprise when I got the call a few weeks later and learned that Billy would be coming onto our hospice service.

When I arrived at Billy’s house for our initial hospice visit, he was watching some television preacher on a religious channel. I noticed a large glass of red wine on the coffee table and a twelve-pack of beer next to Billy’s chair. It was only 4 in the afternoon, but it smelled like Billy had been drinking for a while.

Billy turned off the televangelist and began to regale me with stories of being in Okinawa during World War II. He spoke of how relieved he was when we dropped “the big one” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since it meant he wouldn’t be deployed to Japan in the effort to take the island by ground force. “Many lives were saved,” he said over and over, justifying the use of atomic weaponry and minimizing his own fears of being deployed in a continued war effort.

Billy had three children, two of whom he didn’t see very much. He told me, “All families have spats from time to time. Why can’t everybody just get along?” Joyce, the one daughter Billy still spoke to, lived just a stone’s throw from his cabin. I remember the day I met Joyce. She tearfully told me about her father’s alcoholism and how he had abused her, her sisters, and her mother. When she was only eight years old, Joyce and her siblings had to sit outside the bar in the car on Saturday nights, sometimes until 5 in the morning, waiting for their dad to come out and begin the dreaded drunken drive home. Although her sisters wanted nothing to do with their father, she was still devoted to him, the only one willing to take care of him. She never married.

Once I got to know Billy, I learned that it was best to visit him in the morning. (Billy had an inviolate law that he wouldn’t start drinking before noon, and I wanted to try and speak with the sober Billy.) One morning, with Bob the dog lying on the floor at his feet, Billy was retelling some of his favorite stories—old stories from his war days, stories from his early days here in Oregon, stories about all his old drinking buddies now dead. Billy was trying to create a story that would give meaning to his pains, his failed dreams, and his flawed humanity. Billy was desperate to make sense out of the chaos that was his life.

On a whim, I asked Billy what story he would most want his buddies to remember him by? “If I were sitting with all your drinking buddies and asked them to tell me a story about you, what would they tell me?”

Billy looked as if I’d slapped him in the face. He couldn’t say anything. I pressed him, but he wouldn’t give me an answer. He just sat silently, staring at the floor. Finally, after a long while, he said, “Chaplain, pray for me. . . . I’ve done some bad things.” That was the closest he ever came to sharing his dark side with me. Billy just couldn’t go there.

As I was driving down the mountain from Billy’s house that day, I thought about the myths I have created to make sense of my own pain and flawed humanity. I wondered what stories would my friends tell to remember me? What stories do I tell myself that are currently shaping my behavior?


[1] Robert Solomon, “Lecture 16: Heidegger on the World and the Self,” No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, CD, 2000).

[2] David Biro, The Language of Pain : Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 153.

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