If like me, you are of a certain age, you may remember those funhouses you used to see at fairgrounds or have at least have seen them on TV. You know the ones. They were filled with an odd selection of amusing devices; sliding floors, revolving barrels, compressed air jets and right at the back a hall of mirrors, remember those, the mirrors?
Remember how you and your friends used to walk among the mirrors, all distorted and out of shape. How you would laugh at the images you saw, those reflections that were you but also not you. Smiling as you waved your arms and legs around, watching them take on some weird shapes and, now and then you would come across one that would genuinely frighten you for a second, so unlike you that it was almost impossible to be your reflection. You would leave, running out into the bright light, laughing with your friends about how weird you looked, and also a little relieved that things were back to normal.
But what if you couldn’t leave? Or, more accurately, what if you have no choice but to enter this disturbing hall of mirrors. Unfortunately, this is the reality faced by many experiencing tough times.
While you are puzzling over the connection of mirrors and people going through tough times, let us have a little dive into sociology, never too old to learn something new! Waayyyyy back at the start of the 20th century, a gentleman by the name of Charles Horton Cooley coined the term ‘looking glass self’, which fed into his larger work around human nature and society. In a nutshell, Cooley described it as our reflection of how we think we appear to others. As a result of these reflections, people will change their behaviours based on what they believe other people will think about them, even if it is not true. Over time, interaction with others acts as a looking glass or “mirror” as a person’s sense of self is built off of those around them.
So then, back to the funhouse. Now imagine being surrounded by these distorted images of yourself, not just one but a room full of them and each one a specific mirror: ‘homeless’, ‘chaotic’, ‘substance user’, ‘mental illness’ and this room is also full of people, people who have stopped seeing the real you. They now spend their time talking to the mirrors. For them, this is who you are. Not really a person, just a twisted reflection of your ‘problems’. This crazy hall of mirrors is the reality of a system that no longer works.
So powerful and ingrained into society is this funhouse and its mirrors that should someone enter it with a regular mirror, let you look into it, talk to you about what they see, hear about what you see, that it is not enough. So ingrained have the distorted images become that you can no longer imagine being anything else, so unrecognisable this new person is. And if you are honest, also a little frightening. It is far easier to stay in the funhouse after all these people are professionals so they must be right.
‘The primary reason for the image to be distorted in the mirror is the shape. The more distorted the shape of the mirror is, the less authentic the reflection is. Regular mirrors are created to be as flat as possible. When there is a flaw or a blemish in a mirror, it can be recognised immediately.’
Times have changed, moved forward. What was once the ‘way things were’ is now obsolete. So much has been learned about society, about human behaviour, how we tick, that it is damaging to keep ploughing on with a model that we know does not work. Just as the funhouses of the past have made way for more modern forms of entertainment, maybe it is time we left this old funhouse, and its mirrors, in the past.