Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falcor: So what? That won’t be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh, that’s what everyone thinks! But kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!
I often think about this exchange, occurring late in the second act of The NeverEnding Story (1984). This movie, which I first saw at the perfectly impressionable age of six, still haunts me with its imagery, philosophy, and meditations on the urgency of imagination itself. I think of Atreyu, the protagonist, and reader avatar, on his journey to rescue the childlike empress, attempting to pass through the magic mirror gate. There’s something chilling about the way Engywook says “Most men run away screaming!”
Imagine being so horrified of your own self in a moment of real reflection. The utter torment of being trapped inside the body and mind of a person who you loathe or fear is a special kind of hell. It makes for fantastic introspection.
The reality of the magic mirror gate is that anyone can look into it. It is not a trial forced upon us by the hero’s journey. It is the ever-present self whose greatest obstacle is looking clearly from the outside in. But that reality is far more mundane than Engywook would make it seem. We assess ourselves every day. And in that reflection, more than praise or condemnation, I think the creative and spiritually fulfilled mind may benefit more from the reflective void itself.
While applying to law school recently, I was somewhat overtaken by the numerous and varying questions about my character and (moral) fitness, though perhaps I should not have been. And frankly, I had to unearth the magic mirror. Only this time, I forced myself to stare blankly at past transgressions. I wrote descriptions of infractions and their consequences in simple terms and shook away the theatrical readings; the apologia, the condemnation.
From a young age, I was praised for a certain kind of skill in communication and academic performance. But I was also frequently lazy. By the time I graduated from high school and was stationed in DC with the Air Force, I was met with countless smarter, more driven, and more outwardly successful friends and acquaintances. It took more than a decade to dismantle ‘the self’ and face the truth that I am not my job, I am not my academic performance, I am not the music I listen to. I, the self, am something separate. That separate thing is the thing that creates, that connects, that harmonizes in the community of friends.
So I urge you, dear reader, to observe yourself, your writing, your expressions, your art and inhabit the role of unjudging viewer. This is not the only way to approach oneself, but it is a valuable one. Revel in the othering exercise of imagining your own body as a form without the animating element of personality or soul, simply observing by automation.
Here’s a 10 song playlist that might help the process.
By Robert Winship ,Bittersweet Creative Podcast Producer