Grasping the Concept of a Reflection

“Mom,” Cait came running down stairs, “that robin is at it again! Even with the puppets in the window.”

We have a male robin who’s spending a great deal of his energy dive-bombing our glass door upstairs. Why? Because he sees his reflection in it, and perceives the image he sees to be that of a male intruder in his territory. He has been bashing himself into the door to get at this “aggressive intruder” for a few days. No matter what deterrents we try, he persists.

“Did you get our owl (a fake plastic replica) back from Sarah?”

The owl, a natural predator of robins, did the trick last year when this happened.

“No, I forgot,” Cait said.

“Okay, I’ve got one last trick up my sleeve. Help me put the screens back in. We’ll keep the doors open and see if that does it.”

As Cait held the screwdriver while I fitted the screens, the robin swooped back onto the railing of the deck again with us right there.

She asked, “Mom, I don’t get it. Why can’t he see that it’s just a reflection of himself? Why does he think it’s a different bird?”

“There aren’t many animals that can actually grasp the concept of a reflection,” I answered. “This guy isn’t unusual; he believes he’s defending his nest by keeping his intruder away.”

This gave me the opening for a deeper subject I wanted to discuss; that of how we help create and shape our reality by our outlooks and attitudes — how, so often, what we put out is what we experience the world reflecting back to us. So I said to Cait, “Tell me what happens the more he attacks his intruder?”

Cait thought about it for a moment. “The more he hurts himself…?”

“Yes, that’s very true,” I said, “but put yourself in his wings. The more he attacks, what does he experience happening?”

Just then, helpfully, the robin banged himself into the glass again.

“Oh. I see what you mean,” Cait said. “You mean the more he attacks the intruder, the more the intruder attacks him back!”

“Very good, Grasshopper!” I smiled. “That makes me think of an old tale about The House of One Thousand Mirrors,” I said.

“Yeah, what’s that?” Cait has learned that work always goes faster when we talk, so she was happy I had a ready story.

“Long ago and far away, in a small village, there was a House of One Thousand Mirrors.” I held my hand out for two of the long screws, and then the screw driver, and then continued with the story as I worked. “A happy little dog heard of this place and decided to visit. When he arrived, he trotted happily up the stairs to the house. He looked through the doorway with his ears forward and his tail wagging fast. To his great surprise, he found himself staring at one thousand other happy little dogs with their tails wagging just as fast as his. He smiled a big smile, and was answered with a thousand big smiles just as warm and friendly. As he left the House, he thought to himself, “This is a wonderful place. I will come back and visit it often.”

Having popped that screen in, I started working on the next one. Again, I held my hand out for screws and screw driver. Cait waved me on to continue with my tale.

“In this same village, another little dog, who was not so happy, decided to visit the house. He slowly climbed the stairs and hung his head low as he looked in through the door. When he saw a thousand unfriendly looking dogs staring back at him, he growled at them and was horrified to see one thousand little dogs growling back at him. As he left, he thought to himself, “That is a horrible place, and I will never go back there again.”

Having popped the second screen in, I looked at her and asked, “So what do you think the story is about?”

“That we see in the world what it sees in us?”

“Sort of, but with a half twist. More like, the world feeds us back what we project onto it.”

Cait raised her eyebrows. “In English, please, Mom.”

I laughed. “Yeah. English… Okay. There’s an expression you hear Dad say all the time — Attitude is Everything! And it’s true; having a great attitude will change how you look at life, because it changes how people respond to you. But there’s a reason why it works that most people don’t think about.”

“What’s the reason?” Cait asked.

“Emotions are contagious. For instance, when you hear someone laughing — a really happy, funny laugh — what happens?”

Cait started laughing.

I raised my hands. “My point exactly.” And then I giggled at Cait laughing. “Just the mention of a person really laughing got you laughing. And I didn’t even need to tell you what this hypothetical person was laughing about.”

“Yeah, so…” Cait said.

“The “so” is that it works this way with all emotions. If you had an angry person yelling at you, while you may not yell back, you’d start feeling angry at that person in return.”

Cait looked at me like she sort of understood but didn’t really.

“Okay, this matters for two reasons. Reason #1: The attitude we take out into the world is going to shape how people respond back to us; what we put out directly impacts what we get back. But the really big reason this matters, Reason #2, is that this is even true for what we let ourselves think.”

“So if I think a happy thought, that leads to other happy thoughts. And if I think a sad or angry thought, that leads to more sad, angry thoughts.”

“By George, I think she’s got it!” I said in my best Cockney accent. “That’s one of the big secrets to life. If you can control what you let yourself think, you can rule the world.”

“Or at least myself…”

We laughed.

“Yes. That’s always the best place to start.” I put my arm around her. “Decide to be the happy dog in the thousand mirrors. But for now, help me pick up the tools, and lets see if we’ve helped that robin become a happy robin.”


P.S. The screens worked — we have a happy robin.


15 thoughts on “Grasping the Concept of a Reflection”

  1. What a neat blog post. I see about 1000 great stories within it! The dog story, the mother and daughter story, the robin story…

  2. Lovely thoughts. How much we can teach children by parables and having them observe the animal world of innocence.

  3. Girl and dog, primates also are able to understand a reflection. There are a few others, but I don’t remember them off hand. Birds — definitely not.

  4. Cait is so lucky to be learing that lesson now, at such a young age.

    I read an article about elephants and dolphins being the only animals who can identify their reflections in a mirror. The scientists painted a white spot on the elephant’s forehead, which she couldn’t see without the help of a mirror. They rolled a full-sized mirror in front of her and she patted the spot on her forehead with her trunk, and then started checking herself out! :) Don’t ask me how they figured out dolphins identify their reflections…

  5. P.S. I read an article which explained that dolphins and elephants are pretty much the only animals who recognize their reflections in the mirror. The scientists painted a white spot on the elephant’s forehead (which she couldn’t see without the mirror). When they wheeled the mirror in front of the elephant, she reached up to her forehead with her trunk and touched the spot of paint. Then, she proceeded to check herself out!! Isn’t that awesome? Don’t ask me how they figured out dolphins could recognize themselves…

  6. Yeah, the glum sorts really have to work hard at disciplining their minds to hold a more positive attitude. It takes time.

    By putting the screens in and leaving the doors open (into the room), there’s no reflection for him to see.

  7. Sometimes it is certainly a challenge to project the image you want to receive. But as you say emotions are contagious, I believe it.

  8. Nice! You are so right, although if you are the glum sort it is a real challenge to see the bright side.

    And screens huh? We have one of those robins this year and nothing else, including the big plastic owl has worked.

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