How often do you look at yourself in a mirror? Sure, you may check to see how far a certain shirt comes down your waist, or maybe you check to make sure the part of your hair is in the right spot, or maybe you’ve been hitting the gym more frequently and want to see your progress. Perhaps you want to see if that shirt still fits from your 20’s. But this is not what David was tasked with. He wasn’t supposed to look at his body, he was supposed to look at himself. David couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that. He wasn’t sure he ever had.
David’s life was ruled by habit. And he wasn’t in the habit of looking at himself in the mirror. He told himself it wasn’t necessary. He knew what he looked like, essentially, and fortunate enough for him, society hasn’t yet placed a burdensome expectation on his gender to paint his face before leaving the house.
David lived an efficient life, or at least he tried to. He’d taken to shaving in the shower because the hot water opened his pores better. And he brushed his teeth while doing other things; filling the coffee pot, scratching his dog, or just even scrolling through his phone.
He arranged his life like an organized person would a desk at work. He tried to create as much efficiency as possible, understanding that efficiencies are not inherent in things, but created out of will. He arranged his days so that he could limit time, in David’s words, pausing. It wasn’t that David thought there anything inherently wrong with pausing, but he found that once he started to pause, to idle, it was hard to get going again. If he was just able to keep going, keep moving, then he would. But the minute he paused, he’d have to take a moment to get started again.
What David hadn’t realized, though, is that there is power in the pause. Great and terrible power. Pausing allows us to stop and look around. It lets us reorient ourselves to our surroundings. Rather than just plowing ahead, day in and day out, the pauses help us stop, slow down, and ask questions.
At least, that’s what his therapist told him.
David started to see a therapist at the request of his sister. She told him it would be good for him. She didn’t like how he seemed so laser focused on everything other than himself. “You don’t even know who you are.” She’d told him.
“Of course, I know who I am.” He’d rebuked.
“David, you’re my brother, I love you, but you have no idea who you are. You know who you were. Whether you can see it or not, you’ve changed.”
David wasn’t sure if he believed her or if this was just another problem she was trying to find so that she might come up with a solution.
When they were kids, she’d done similar things, inventing a problem in her head and then coming up with a solution for it. One time, when they were in middle school, she’d arranged a whole family intervention with their parents because she’d thought they were getting divorced. She’d invited their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a few cousins who were around. There were 15 people there. And then, when their parents walked in, his sister just started talking about how she knew, just knew that they still loved each other, and that they could work it out. They’d have the support of the whole family behind them. Then she started asking the other relatives to tell them how much their marriage meant to them.
David couldn’t remember who was more shocked, his parents, or the rest of the family. Nobody had any idea what was happening. His sister had kept it all to herself. He remembered the look on his mother’s face going from shock to concern to confusion. Looking at his father with a silent, “did you know about this?” face.
There were other instances, too, of his sister inventing problems. There was the time she decided that bookstores were wrecking the planet, and so she camped outside a nearby bookstore and handed out flyers, printed flyers, mind you, extolling the hazards of printing too many books, of the deforesting in all parts of the globe.
There was another time where she tried to convince David that the local newspaper in town was out to turn the city against the mayor. She got a job there, imagining herself going undercover, trying to catch the nefarious media executive in a plot to bring down a local government over a personal vendetta. What she ultimately discovered was that the mayor had been skimming funds to build a swimming pool in his back yard, which was the exact story the newspaper had published in the first place.
And then she had begged David to go into therapy. After several weeks of daily phone calls from her, he stopped and thought about it. It was an hour a week at most. And insurance would probably cover it. So, he might as well try it. And, if he was being honest, he did feel a little stuck in his life. A little like he’d reached a dead end. Maybe talking to someone could help with that.
And so, after a month of his sister pleading, David found a therapist.
His first few sessions were nothing like he expected. His therapist, whom he was instructed to refer to as Al, was just trying to get to know him. He asked about his upbringing, parents, his sister, what school was like, and his current job.
At the end of the third session, David said that he wasn’t sure the point of all of this.
“What do you mean?” Al asked.
“It’s just, isn’t therapy supposed to be where you talk about your problems?”
“Do you have problems you’d like to talk about?” He followed up.
“I don’t know. I don’t really think about stuff like that.”
“What do you think about?”
“I just keep going. I try to just do what needs to be done and then move on to the next thing.”
“Why?” He prodded.
“Why?” David thought for a moment. “I guess because it’s hard to get back going when I stop.”
Al wrote something down in a yellow legal pad he kept on his lap. He used one leg as a table, with his ankle crossed over the other knee so that his legs looked like an uppercase T. “David, do you know who you are?”
“Huh? Of course, I do.”
“No, not superficially. I mean, what makes you, you. What motivates and drives you? What do care for. What do you strive to be?” He paused. “Do you know what makes you you? Do you know who you are? If you’re constantly moving from one thing to another, do you ever stop and think about why? Or about who’s doing all these things?”
David sat and looked at him. He wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I have a homework assignment I’d like you to do this week before our next session.” Al said. “I’d like you to look in a mirror for three straight minutes. Don’t do anything else. Just look at your face for three minutes. Set a timer on your phone. And then after the three minutes is up, I want you to write about who you see. Bring it in and we’ll talk about it next week.”
And this is how David found himself finally looking at himself in a mirror. He’d set the timer on his phone for three minutes, as instructed, and then set it face down on the counter next to him. He had a small notebook on the lid of the dirty clothes hamper in front of the toilet behind him.
David looked. First, he studied his face. There were a few wrinkles there, but his face still looked like his face. His hair was still dark, almost black, the color of black coffee in a ceramic cup. He had a good amount of stubble on his face. He hadn’t shaved for a few days. His beard was mostly dark as well, but he counted nine white hairs growing from his chin.
He looked at his skin. It glistened from the oils his face constantly produced. He’d had a small acne problem in high school, but now, he thought, the oil was probably helpful to keep his skin looking young.
He looked at his mouth. He wasn’t smiling. He let his lips go slack, letting them rest where they would. His expression was blank. It was the expression of someone who is trying to fall asleep, except his eyes were open.
His eyes. That’s where he looked next. They were brown, and the dark pupils in the centers were small. The lights above the vanity mirror were bright enough to keep his eyes dilated.
Those eyes, his eyes, had seen much, and they’d seen nothing. He wasn’t in the habit of using them for looking. His eyes, as was the rest of his body, were for doing. But now he wasn’t doing. He was looking. And what did they see?
They saw a man. David never considered himself a man. Society might, based on his age, but he wasn’t society. He still felt like the same person he’d been in school. It’s a strange feeling, he thought, for society to put different labels on you at different times in your life, but to feel like the same person you always were.
Looking at himself now, he understood. He wasn’t the same. Not even a little. The boy David was still in there, but the boy had grown. He’d seen more of the world. He’d been part of the world. He’d worked for a decade, now, at the same job, earning money and spending it on food and clothing and car payments. Saving, wherever he could, for a retirement when he was…
Older. He thought to himself.
He looked at the nine white hairs on his face. He was older. Retirement was closer than it was two minutes ago. His youth, farther away.
For a moment, David thought about the things he still had to do that day. It was garbage day, and he needed to take out the trash. And his dishwasher was clean and full, so he needed to unload it. But he quickly shook those thoughts away and went back to the mirror. Went back to himself.
Out loud, he spoke. “What do you want?”
He listened to his voice. He watched his mouth move. This person in the mirror seemed to be asking him. What did he want? Was he…happy? Is that even a legitimate question? Should that be a goal? To be happy?
“Are you happy?” The man in the mirror asked him.
He stared into his own eyes. He was curious. Who was this person? If he met this person on the street, would he recognize him?
He thought about other faces he knew. His sister. His friends. His coworkers. He closed his eyes and brought each of their faces to mind. He could see them in great detail. But his own face was a mystery to him.
What an odd thing; out of all the faces he could recall, he knew his own the least.
He could recognize hundreds of people in a crowd, but would he recognize himself?
The alarm on David’s phone rang. His three minutes were up. He ended the alarm and put his phone in his pocket. He slowly turned and sat down on the closed toilet seat and grabbed the small notebook already open to a blank page, an efficiency he’d created in a previous life.
Who am I? He wrote.
He sat there, with the afternoon sun coming through the windows in his bathroom. He sat there, not doing anything else. Not trying to accomplish any tasks, and thought about the question he’d already written.
Who am I?
He put the rest of his life on pause. And he sat in that pause. There is power in a pause, he thought. He was a bit frightened of it. Who was he?
David grabbed the pen and started to write.