Mirrors are highly polished surfaces that reflect the sight of its viewer. A mirror shows what it sees; it cannot show beyond that or create something that doesn’t exist in its view-focus. This is the limitation that exists in the mirror. When one stands in front of it to see themselves, a mirror not only reflects what one sees but also one’s perception of oneself. This part is a trick played by the mind. The reflection is a reflection of one’s self assertion.
There has been a history of fascination with these shiny surfaces; people hoping to know more than what the mirror reveals. A popular Indian superstition believes that a mirror must not be broken. If it is, one faces bad luck. Consider the hypothesis that a mirror reflects what we think and breaking that is the equivalent of breaking away from what we know to embrace the world of possibilities. This comes in the wake of uncertainty, unreliability and breaking away from the norm. We are free to choose what we wish to believe. The superstition is making light of this, telling us that we should conform to the ideas that were conditioned into us by society rather than embrace a life freed from the shackles of convention.
Consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the mirror is a metaphor for the Queen’s inferiority complex that she masks with pseudo superiority. In these tales, mirrors are cautionary- to be consulted not indulged in. It makes one wonder if they stood for something more- like the limitations we set ourselves without our own knowledge.
Folklore has been one of the most advanced tools of communicating wisdom by word of mouth. There is a popular story about Buddha during his time as Prince Siddhartha. His palace had a large polished window that was covered with a curtain on the outside- an effort by his father to never let his son see the real world. This window acted as a mirror, reflecting the opulence and grandeur of his home; an extension of his luxurious life. One stormy afternoon, the curtain fluttered widely, revealing a frame of what the outside world looked like. Astounded, the Prince stood in front of the mirror, waiting for the curtain to flicker again. He demanded the curtains to be pulled down after the storm and was shocked by the view that was in store for him. It took a storm for him to realize that there was a world outside his own. He was amazed by reality, the muddy city beneath him in all its greatness and grime. The storm turned a mirror into a window.I wager that the storm is a metaphor for a learning experience, an education. The word education takes its roots in the latin word ēdūcō which means ‘I raise, I lead’. Its roots are entrenched in the meaning of self-betterment; something that makes us take charge. And to this day, that meaning holds true. Any experience that broadens our worldview is an education; an understanding that instills humanity in us is an education.
A window is a way to see the world from where we stand. It is crystallized sand that stands between us and what we observe. But a window, unlike a mirror goes on and on. It shows as far as the eyes can see. The more you crane your neck, the more you see. And what you see is what you get; the window is a view into the world, our immediate surroundings. When one draws open the curtains and sees what the window has in store, they are never sure of what they see, because the window presents the reality. And reality is unpredictable. In all these ways, the window behaves in all manners that fairy tale writers wanted a mirror to act and believers of superstition wanted a mirror to not- as a means to go beyond what we know and into the realm of possibilities.
Education is like the wave of the magicians wand that takes the shimmer off the looking glass and turns it into a glass that looks upon the world. When we stand between two mirrors we see an infinite number of reflections of ourselves. Similarly, when we are caught up in our own lives, we are stuck in an infinite loop of our own limitations. We can take a dash of reality and humility as tools that impart education about life. Using that to scrub away the polish on the mirror, we are left with two windows that show us the two realities of our world. On one side are abundance, joy and light. The other side is pain, suffering, and darkness. And our own position is in the middle of them both, sometimes drawing in the light and sometimes enveloped in darkness.
This essay was written as a commentary on the quote
“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”
– Sydney J. Harris