In J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised, a mirror that shows us “nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Harry, whose parents were killed in his infancy, sees his family reunited when he looks in the mirror. Harry’s best friend Ronald Weasley, who had always been overshadowed by his five older brothers, sees himself winning several awards. Dumbledore professes to see a pair of “thick, woolen socks,” though we learn in a later book that this is a lie. Dumbledore actually sees the return of his deceased sister Ariana.
Dumbledore has just as good a reason as Harry, and a much better reason that Ron, to become obsessed with the Mirror of Erised. Who could resist the allure of a loved one’s momentary reincarnation? Nevertheless, Dumbledore is wary of the mirror, and warns Harry that “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
And although we muggles, or non-magical people, will never lose ourselves to the Mirror of Erised, we are certainly in danger of losing ourselves to our own fantasies in much the same way. Most human beings spend much more time and cognitive energy thinking about the things we don’t have instead of the things we do have.
This pattern of thinking is the result of natural selection. Throughout our species’ evolution, it was adaptive to respond only to changing stimuli. If a stimulus is constant or seems constant to us, we will use it to inform our perception of the world, and then stop noticing it. It would be a waste of cognitive resources to continue devoting attention to something that is unchanging.
So it is biology that causes us to fail to recognize every day that we wake up alive, safe, in warm bed, with food in the refrigerator. It is biology that causes us to constantly count the days until winter break and hope that someday there will be enough snow for classes to be canceled. But such thoughts often lead to disappointment. We cannot make time go faster or control the weather any more than Harry and Dumbledore can resuscitate their long-dead relatives.
Focusing on the things we do not have is adaptive only when the things we desire are things that we can realistically obtain. Our ancestors were focused on finding better food and constructing better shelter, goals that could be attained through the invention of better tools or a greater time commitment. And when we are focused on getting an A on our calculus final or on performing well in a job interview, our biological tendencies can help us greatly. They can keep us focused on the task at hand, even when distractions present themselves or when we become discouraged. They can stop us from selling ourselves short, from being satisfied with our lot when we could be capable of achieving so much more.
The challenge, then, is recognizing when to restrain our biological drive to focus on what we do not have, and when to let it free. The choice we make depends on our ability to distinguish between goals we can realistically achieve and those that are out of our reach. Correctly categorizing our aspirations in this way is not easy. Those of us with a slightly inflated ego might identify the vast majority of our goals as easily attainable while those of us lacking in self-confidence might doubt our ability to reach any of our goals. The unfortunate result is that some of us might spend too much time and energy chasing unlikely outcomes, and others of us might give up too early.
Since we are all judge ourselves differently than others would judge us, one remedy to this problem might be to employ the input of others. A trusted individual who knows you, your capabilities and your accomplishments might be more likely to accurately categorize your aspirations than you would be. While many of us would likely be reluctant to turn big decisions over to a third party, it’s important to recognize that the view others have of us may help us form a more well-rounded image of ourselves. In some ways, every mirror is the Mirror of Erised. They all show us a reflection that is distorted by our own desires. The clearest picture of ourselves might be the one seen through someone else’s eyes.