All is Vanity
I believe, for most of us, all is vanity and vanity is all.
I was recently having a discussion, with a friend who has suffered a lot of loss on the previous year, and, not surprisingly, we had differing views on this subject.
We had been talking about the meaning of life, what is reality, and how do we know what is actual truth, or if there even is one. My friend is a fellow expat and had been on vacation in Venice. She told me that she had seen some graffiti there and it has a great influence on her thinking and her belief system. She’s not particularly religious and has been searching for meaning since she has experienced so much loss and didn’t understand why it was happening to her now.
The graffiti was simple. And yet is was an incredibly powerful messages to her, “Truth is beauty.” She then extrapolated this to have even more meaning for her. Her thoughts became, “If beauty is truth, and truth is love, then love is beauty and truth.” her thoughts are quite reasonable, and honestly, quite beautiful. Therefore, according to her thoughts and beliefs, it must be true.
After telling her that I thought her idea was beautiful, we discussed more about it. Nearing the end of the conversation, as we were discussing why people think, act, and believe the things they do, I stated that, “All is vanity.”
She, with good reason, disagreed intensely.
After listening to her reasons for disagreeing, I explained why I believe that.
In my humble opinion, vanity has been given a bad name.
The term vanity comes from the Latin word vanus. The original definition of vanus is, “idle” or “empty.” I find it interesting that this word, and definition, has now become synonymous with “boastful” or “self centered” when used in today’s common vernacular.
First off, unlike the current definition, I do not immediately consider vanity a negative value of a person’s personality. I never would have become a personal trainer, massage therapist, a psychotherapist, or a social worker if I didn’t have some amount of vanity or ego waiting to be fulfilled, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t get some type of “benefit” by their actions. Even being selfless is rewarded because that person is then thought of as a giving, caring and loving person. That then reinforces the person’s belief that they are caring, and the cycle continues. This is neither good, nor bad, it is just an explanation of how each action has a reward attached to it.
Being that therapists and social workers are usually thought of as being part of the giving professions it might sound strange to think that vanity, or ego. However this is exactly where vanity, or ego, played a large part in my choice of career. I’d actually guess that it plays a large part in the choice of career of any therapist or social worker, for the rains i stated in the previous paragraph. I would have to think it would play a part in just about any profession.
In my case, I remember being 9 years old and wanting to be a psychotherapist. One of my mom’s friends was a psychoanalyst, and I thought, “How cool is that? She helps people by talking to them. On top of that, she gets paid to do it!” The other profession that interested me was being an astronaut. Surprisingly, being that I’m horrible at math, that dream job didn’t work out.
As I progressed through my different careers, on my way to becoming a therapist, I almost always had jobs helping others. This is where vanity comes into play: My belief was that I can help people which made me feel happy and powerful.
This is why I say vanity has gotten a bad rap: Vanity, if you understand why you are doing something, is an incredibly useful tool. If you realize that your drive in life is to help others, while also getting rewarded for doing that, it is wonderful. The issue that can be problematic is if you aren’t aware of your own vanity and what it drives to do in this world.
Here is a very easy example: I don’t like to think of myself as materialistic or self centered. At this point, our whole lifestyle is focused around being minimalists and living a simple life. I also like to think of myself as magnanimous. Those are perfect qualities for a social worker and for someone that writes posts for a website dedicated to helping others master the same ideals. However, in the paragraph above, where I mention my mom’s friend, I wrote that not only does she get to talk to people, she gets paid for it. I specifically wrote the comment about money as the least important of the qualities that mattered to me. However, the reality is that it is one of the most important since, like most people, I wanted to get paid for the work I do. This may not seem like a major issue, but everything we do, for the sake of our vanity, changes the way we speak, act, or think. Not being honest about our vanity, either to others or to ourselves, can cause stress, pressure, and can ruin lives.
Back to my friend’s belief about the graffiti, I would suggest that her belief is also based on vanity. She rightfully believes that truth is beauty. Therefore, her statement, “If beauty is truth, and truth is love, then love is beauty and truth.” No matter how wonderful this belief makes one feel, it is still vanity since every single one of us has a different view of beauty.
My question to her was simple, “Being that every single person sees color in a slightly different way, who is to say what is beautiful or true?” If you think about it, that is why art, music, and dance is so often debated and discussed: People have widely varying ideas of what each of these mediums represent and why they are beautiful, boring, hideous, exciting, and so forth. To state the obvious, there is no black and white. It is our own belief and our own view that is truth. And, more importantly, it is our own vanity that allows us to decide what we want, what we believe, and most importantly, who we are and how we will interact with the universe.
When you think of term vanity with this definition, almost anything in life can be thought of on a continuum between narcissistic on one end, and absolute selflessness on the other: It all depends on how view the actions through your belief system.
My friend and I continued to discuss the idea of vanity and didn’t come to a final conclusion. We decided we’d talk more as new ideas came to us and keep it open ended. I’m glad we left it this way as I’m not sure there is a final decision regarding this belief. Maybe thinking there should be a definitive answer would be vanity since it is different to each and every person.
Maybe there really isn’t any answer. Maybe just being okay with not knowing is enough. To try to define reality, in the current definition, would be the height of vanity.
I found this translation of Ecclesiastes, 1:1, to be quite powerful. I hope you enjoy it and it allows you to think about vanity, beauty, truth, and reality, in a new way.
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.”
A second translation I found had the first lines written slightly different:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
I appreciate these two translations since they could be construed as opposites if you use the current definition of vanity. However, when you think of the original definition, it makes perfect sense. As we age and time progresses onward, we hopefully realize that vanity is all. And if vanity is also meaningless (according to the original definition) then being vain is meaningless. We can become anything we want. But even so, we will remain vain. And, in the future, long after we die and we are forgotten, we will once more become meaningless. In a way, it allows one to be free of their vanity by being vain.
One of my favorite authors, Joseph Heller also had a wonderful quote regarding vanity, which I would feel remiss if I didn’t share it with you. It was the original quote I was looking for while writing this essay. I ended up using Ecclesiastes 1:1 instead because of the overarching story that it tells to the reader.
That being stated, I think Mr. Heller’s quote is extremely insightful, especially in its simplicity as it seems to state everything Ecclesiastes stated, but in one perfect sentence. But maybe that is just my vanity and ego and you will disagree. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
“All is vanity, you know, all in the long run is but vanity and vexation of the spirit.” – Joseph Heller
Here are some questions for you to ponder. Feel free to discuss in the comment sections if you feel so inclined.
- What do you define as vanity?
- Do you believe vanity is all or that everything is meaningless?
- Is there a middle ground between vanity and meaningless?
- What do you believe the author Joseph Heller was trying to tell us and why?
- Was there a time when you recall that your vanity was problematic?
- Was there a time when you recall when your vanity helped you?
- If you find vanity being a problem in your life, is there something you’d like to change?
- If you want to change, what would be the first step and how would you start?
FYI, Joseph Heller wrote the book catch 22. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
A fun bit of trivia: Joseph Heller is the reason we now have the term, “It’s a real catch 22” when people are in no win situations. He made it up while writing that book. Now it is used in everyday conversation. Considering the term vanity, imagine creating a statement that becomes part of everyday language? It would be interesting to see how his life changed once he became famous.
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