why we want mirrors

I’ve written several times about Fran Liebowitz’s discussion of books from the Netflix series, Pretend It’s a City. The most striking of her comments, being of course, the moment when she says, “a book isn’t supposed to be a mirror, it’s supposed to be a door!”

Jennifer Egan expands upon this idea in this interview where she discusses fiction as the means to generate compassion and empathy, a process by which we open portals into the consciousness of others.

Fueled by both these conversations, the question I’ve been pondering recently is, “How did we get here? How and why is it we need to see ourselves represented in the stories we tell?”

The obvious answer is the desire to orient ourselves in stories. We’ve become more and more self-centered as a culture, to the point where we feel a character must share our gender, sexuality, race, ethics, morals, and even taste in music before we’ll allow ourselves to be transported into them (This is–of course–absurd).

The argument could be made as well that we’re quicker to dismiss that we’ve come to view with a sense of moral judgement, including the characters with whom we’re asked to identify. We’ve collectively suffered from a warping of the ego, which has left our beliefs inextricably stuck to our identity. Any challenge to this identity, even something as simple as immersing in a story about someone unlike us, shuts us down immediately. We refuse to engage anything with which we disagree.

But there’s another reason I think is at play as well–social media.

While the initial goal of social media was hyper-connectivity, it’s been proven again and again that socializing on the internet has siphoned us off from one another. Instead of becoming more and more connected, we’ve become more and more isolated. Both consciously and unconsciously, we feel alone.

I think this is one of the primary factors driving the desire for characters who reflect us–we want to know there are other people out there like us, who have similar hopes and dreams and emotions.

Of course, the great irony here is that we can find these things in most stories, in characters who aren’t anything like us. Doing so generates compassion, generates empathy, allows us to recognize the humanity of those around us.

But to do so, we must learn to separate ourselves from our moral judgements for the sake of engaging with one another.