Vanity's end

Buried somewhere in the following 750 words, gentle and perceptive reader, you may find a frequently overlooked truth that can save you time, money, grief, and anguish. This mini-epiphany came to me unbidden, a revelation that – if it ever caught on with the world at large – could ruin whole industries, severely injure the economy, and wipe out major publications. At the same time, it will greatly increase your own sense of comfort and confidence.

Do I now have your complete attention?

This rarely acknowledged truth might even save you from committing four of the Seven Deadly Sins, namely pride, covetousness, anger, and envy. (Pop quiz detour: Can you name the other three?)

From the mostly ancient of times, ostentatious display, conceit and the desire for admiration of one’s personal attractions have been frowned upon by the keepers of public morality. The Bible wags its admonishing finger at us when we indulge in preening and vainglory. Philosophers – and others who eschew heavy lifting – warn of the pitfalls of too much self-appreciation.

As I age and decry the lost image of myself as young, vigorous, lean, and racy, I’m resigned to the sprouting of my love handles, my ever-rounding belly, my rapidly graying hair – and the loss of same on my head along with its uninvited, unwelcome appearance elsewhere. Gravity attacks and I try to distract myself from the evidence of its triumph over me.

To take away attention from what is actually happening to them, some people indulge in drastic cosmetic surgery or hair coloring in the forlorn hope that no one will notice that they have attained their 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. Others pursue vigorous, unnatural activity – straining, sweating and jarring their skeletons, forgetting that the true evolutionary purpose of running is to get away from something or to catch something.

I’ve also seen those who starve themselves in a silly yearning for that svelte anorexic look, exploring the binge-and-purge route. While I haven’t hung on to the 30-inch-waist wardrobe I enjoyed in my 20s and 30s, I admit – with embarrassment – to retaining some clothing, for sentimental reasons, that I’ll never be able to button again.

As a little tyke I sometimes enjoyed the warm, gentle radiance of being admired – someone thought I was cute, if not actually good-looking. Someone else has laughed at my jokes or praised me for I can’t remember what. Later on, a small handful even thought they might want to spend their lives with me. Once – when they were too young to know better – my kids thought I was wise. And the resulting glow of self-satisfaction was marvelous even if dangerously addictive.

I, in my turn, have snapped my head to follow the stride of an uncommonly attractive person, even featured, well proportioned, tailored, confident. Sometimes I notice such a being with veneration, an appreciation of beauty. Sometimes I react with jealousy, sometimes with nostalgia for the era when I imagined I was the object of such esteem.

Being preoccupied with how I look has not served me well. I remember the night of my high school senior prom (“senior” meant something else to me in those days). Fresh haircut, scoured skin, newly pressed clothing, blindingly shined shoes. But how quickly I shrank from feeling ten feet tall to something less than three. Corsage in hand, I rang the doorbell of my date, who appeared wearing a stunning frock, hair done to a T. She looked me over, and then after a moment said, “You forgot to zip your fly.”

Oh, vanity!

These days, I don’t look in the mirror much, just enough for necessary adjustments like combing my remaining hair or making sure there’s no jam on my beard. Appearing neat and clean does count; being the target of every admiring eye no longer does. Here’s why: Alert, vigilant and thoughtful readers will remember that earlier in this polemic I promised an insightful bombshell. Pay attention. Wait for it. Here it comes.

Somewhere in my journey through the decades, I had a sudden realization: Mostly, people weren’t concerned with how I looked; they were focused on how THEY looked!

Having gone through periods when I was not certain that I really was OK, not truly sure of myself, I might take some tucks in my attitude and behavior. But I’ve come to understand that preoccupation with my appearance – coming across as an improved or superior self – is like trying to polish a brick to a mirror finish. Waste of energy. Can’t be done.

What a relief to discover I’m no longer in everyone else’s crosshairs. I probably never was.

Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who wonders how much time you spend thinking about how you look.