I wrote this essay as my exercise for this week’s writing group meeting. The prompt was “looking in the rearview mirror.”
When I was in high school, one of my friends used to pull out a little compact with a mirror from her purse every day in the high school lunchroom after she’d eaten so she could check her teeth and make sure they were clean and free of food particles. When I was in college, I once walked to my first class of the day in a heavy snowfall. Only after stopping in the restroom after class before heading to my next one did I realize that my mascara had given me Alice Cooper eyes, thanks to the snowflakes melting on my eyelashes. I had no clue until seeing myself in the bathroom mirror.
Mirrors are useful that way. They allow us to see things from a perspective we otherwise never could have.
The rearview mirror was one of the automobile’s earliest safety features. According to Wikipedia (yay, Wikipedia! Click here for info on how to donate to this very worthy nonprofit: https://wikimediafoundation.org/support/), mirrors were being installed on cars as early as the 19-oughts and 19-teens. Apparently, their main purpose was to help drivers be more aware of other vehicles that might overtake them from behind. This was an era, of course, when we barely had actual roads in much of America, much less any significant traffic. As driving became a more complex undertaking, additional mirrors were added to the sides of the vehicle, and the rearview mirror became important for many reasons. Can you imagine trying to change lanes or merge without the benefit of mirrors in heavy, fast-moving traffic on an interstate highway? How about parallel parking in crowded urban streets?
One of my favorite movie scenes involves a rearview mirror. I still experience a shivery thrill every time Steve McQueen’s dark green Ford Mustang materializes in the rearview mirror of that Dodge Charger driven by those Chicago hitmen in Bullitt (1968)—an iconic moment of reversal in which the hunted becomes the hunter. In this particular instance, the mirror is more used as a dramatic device than serving any functional necessity. In fact, when Steve McQueen overshoots a corner during the subsequent high-speed chase, he doesn’t use his rearview mirror to assist in backing up. Instead he sticks his head out of his open window and eyeballs it, making for far more interesting and compelling action nicely complemented by clouds of exhaust flying out of the rear tire wells as he quickly reverses course and peels out in the right direction to catch up with the bad guys.
In another movie I really like, Smoke Signals (1998), which is set in part on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in northwestern Idaho, there’s a young woman who drives her car backwards throughout the film, the assumption being that the car has only two gears working, “park” and “reverse.” Interestingly, this young woman never uses her rearview mirror. Instead she drives forward/backward twisted around in her seat so that she can look out her rear window while also conversing with the car’s passengers.
Which brings me to my main point about rearview mirrors. Although they’re a great safety feature as an add-on to your main focus, they become an impediment if you stop fully seeing the reality in front of you because you’ve shifted attention instead to the image in your rearview mirror.
That’s kind of a nice metaphor.
Mirrors are useful for gaining a larger perspective and avoiding tunnel vision. Sometimes looking in the figurative “rearview mirror” of your life provides excellent insights for understanding yourself and making better decisions in high-stakes situations. As Santayana said, after all, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So a good rearview mirror is exactly the right tool for remaining aware of your surroundings—both spatial and temporal, both literal and metaphorical.
But if you spend too much time ruminating on the past, it becomes difficult to move forward safely and purposefully to your intended destination.