In Praise of Vanity

Last time I saw my brother, he smelled bad. Really bad. Don’t think he’d washed in a week. Maybe two. His hair was greasy and matted. Teeth were yellow. Clothes were stained. He wore mismatched socks and his t-shirt was inside-out. It was painful to behold: the depression was killing him.

He died a few days later. Suicide.

I realize now, and only in retrospect, that the signs were all there. When someone loses the will to look good, it’s often because they’ve begun to lose the will to live. Anyone who’s worked with the elderly will tell you this (e.g., we knew Mrs. Johnson’s days were numbered when she stopped putting on her make-up in the morning, and we knew Mrs. Cooper wasn’t long for this world when she stopped curling her hair).

Like most of you, I was vain in my teens and early twenties. But I was vain with a bad conscience. It felt like a character flaw. Something shameful. Something to be hidden from view. It’s a kind of hypocrisy that’s pretty much the norm in our culture. As the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb rightly observes in The Bed of Procrustes: “Most of what they call humility is successfully disguised arrogance.”

I used to despise vanity in myself and others. But at 41, I must confess that I’ve warmed to it. Indeed, I’ve come to see the wisdom in something Benjamin Franklin said in his Autobiography (something, truth be told, which I once found perverse): “Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

One thought on “In Praise of Vanity

  1. When one looks good to oneself, aren’t we inherently trying to look good to others? In a weird way, there could be an altruistic tradeoff that successfully disguises the vanity. Or is it more the point that the vanity in oneself is acquired as something of a sacrifice so that we may pay it back to society to be ‘presentable’ and ‘look good’?

    Like

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