The Over-Examined Life

looking in mirror

I must have been about 14 when my father sent me to meet with our minister for some “counseling.” By that point, I had already gone through a couple of phases in my spiritual development. When I was 10, I had a inexplicable surge of religious devotion; but when puberty gripped me, I moved away from Presbyterianism and landed on a pugnacious brand of agnosticism. Sensing I might veer into atheism, my father took action by sending me to see the venerable Reverend Jim Erickson, with the aim, I presumed, of steering me back toward the church.

As instructed, I met Rev. Erickson in his office adjacent to the main sanctuary of our vast Romanesque church. It was a warm, stale-smelling space full of books and threadbare furniture where, I imagined, grieving members of Rev. Erickson’s congregation sat and wept about ruined lives. There I sat on the minister’s couch, staring at my corduroys, wondering what kind of indoctrination awaited me. Rev. Erickson was a kind man, though, and the conversation consisted mostly of probing questions about my values, interests, and belief in God. I answered honestly but didn’t yield any ground.

At one point, Rev. Erickson turned toward the window as if to contemplate my moral dilemma. In the warm afternoon sun, I saw he had remarkably smooth, almost wax-like facial skin. As I studied the contours of his face, my eyes were arrested by some long whiskers his razor had evidently missed, just where the nostrils meet the upper lip. These rebellious bristles might have been less noticeable on another man, but Rev. Erickson was so punctilious in every other regard—his black hair subdued into neat, parallel lines by Brylcreem, his cheeks and chin as smooth and pale as funerary marble—that they could no more be ignored than a fly on the Pietà. My fascination having been corrupted, I barely heard another thing the man said. Every word he uttered made the whiskers beneath his nostrils dance in a satire of his Protestant seriousness.

Middle Age in Glowing 10x

My meeting with Dr. Erickson didn’t lead to a spiritual reawakening, but it did make me more careful shaving each morning. It also made me wonder how the kindly clergyman, so obviously attentive to his ablutions, could have missed those thick, black whiskers. His nose, though prominent in a kind of Roman Republican way, wasn’t so imposing that a razor couldn’t do its work. Why then the lapse in the minister’s grooming?

About 40 years later, my wife announced that she wanted to buy a magnifying mirror for our bathroom. She was having a hard time, she said, applying makeup and asked that I do some research on an appropriate solution. After a few minutes on Amazon I found the perfect product: the Simplehuman 10x cordless lighted mirror in brushed stainless steel. Sleek in design and rechargeable by means of a USB port, this little number combined utility and beauty in a way William Morris would have approved. I placed the order.

When the package arrived, I got the mirror all charged up and placed on a table by the vanity in our bathroom. Its coolest feature was that it lit up automatically each time I leaned into it. Between the impressive “tru-lux” light system and the 10x magnification, the mirror gave a new and startling perspective on my 56-year-old face. In fact, it was like something out of Gulliver’s visit to Brobdingnag. I had no idea my skin had so much going on. What looked like a nice, peachy complexion in forgiving incandescent light became under 10X magnification a riot of red, brown, and purple spots, veins, pores, and keratoses. I could see my pupils dilate in the mirror when I first beheld the lunar landscape I have for decades presented to the world without embarrassment. There were the broken capillaries on my chin, a strange brown crater on my forehead, an array of age spots on the right cheekbone and, to make matters worse, unruly black eyebrows that begged for scissors.

Then I saw the whiskers.

Clustered just beneath my nose and outside my nostrils were about a dozen longish whiskers, some black and some white, loitering defiantly like drunks outside a pub. Their presence was as much a revelation as proof that UFOs exist. Here they were in plain sight—or at least in 10x magnification: proof that fate had exacted a cruel revenge on my teenage self.

The Power of Discarding

Peering into that mirror for 20 minutes or so, I realized that reading glasses aren’t just for reading. Since my mid-40s I’d been using readers, but it never occurred to me I needed them in the bathroom. Apparently, Rev. Erickson hadn’t realized this fact, either. Struck by the irony of this development, I saw a new paranoia creep into my morning ablutions. It wasn’t enough to check my shaving in the stark light of the Simplehuman, I examined my ears for wax, my forehead for patches of dry skin, my neck for ingrown whiskers. That mirror had a Mephistophelean grip on me I couldn’t escape. My usual half-hour routine stretched to 45 minutes as I checked my face over and over again.

Then one day the mirror was gone. I asked my wife what she’d done with it.

“I put it away,” she said. “The magnification is too strong.”

“Yeah, but how else do you see that stuff?” I asked incredulously. She didn’t hear me. Maybe I didn’t say it out loud. I’ve thought about retrieving the Simplehuman from the linen closet where she put it, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s not that I’m giving up on shaving more carefully or that I’m embracing some bizarre rapprochement with Dr. Erickson’s spirit. I think it’s just an acknowledgment that, while the unexamined life is not worth living, the over-examined one is hell on your morning routine. Plus, I have to say I was impressed that my wife, always the more rational one in our marriage, didn’t fret over age spots. She just retired the mirror. It’s a good idea. I think I have some tight-fitting jeans to retire as well.

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