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Posted on December 8th, 2015

The Geography of My Mind – Happiness and Vanity

Somewhere along the line we start to develop a sense of entitlement, a feeling of superiority. Now, this doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place – we’re simply born into a society that judges one another. Not all judgment is bad, of course, but when it becomes the default setting for our every interaction, we’re bound to go off track when it comes to social niceties and being decent human beings. The late David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College, that was whittled down to a well-produced ten-minute video about how to interact with others, but more importantly, how to think about interacting with others. If you want a jolt of optimism in your life, search for, “This is Water.” If you want a jolt of pessimism, keep reading.

I’ve often thought that we have two distinct actions to stimuli as humans: reactions and responses. Reactions are almost instinctual (though it is debatable if humans actually have instincts any longer) and are oftentimes beyond our control. But because we have evolved into (supposedly) civil beings, we are also blessed with response, which is how we chose to counter our initial reactions. For instance, if someone says something that offends you (side note: to be offended is a choice), your initial reaction might be to be upset, caught off guard, or to become violent. Your response, how you choose to maturely reply and thus the facilitation point of the course of the rest of your life, could be to dismiss the comment, to engage respectfully and intelligently, or to try and understand why someone did/said what they did. Easier said than done in many cases.

But more to the point here for our subject matter is why we react and respond to certain stimuli the way we do. Almost always it’s social conditioning, but because we are (supposedly) rational beings we possess the cognition to behave as moral beings and not be reductionist in our thinking. Vague? Let me grasp at clarity. One of the most captivating elements of human life is the search for a partner. While it seems that the status quo is less and less successful (look at the divorce rate) or less and less desired (look at open relationships, serial dating and polyamory), there is still something in many of us that dreams of the “soulmate,” the other side of the coin, or our partner in crime. And while we all likely have visions in our head about what that person should look like, think like and be like, only the rare few get all those boxes checked. For the rest of us unwashed masses, we have to adapt to the options presented.

Which brings me to my current state of thoughts: why is it that one little thing can throw us off our potential for coupling? We’ve all heard the stories about a girl’s ‘pointer’ toe being longer than her big toe and thus being a deal-breaker. The same goes for a guy who is just a little too short or has a hairy back. Some girls have dumb laughs. And these little, inconsequential aspects of a person can be the kiss of death for what was otherwise, possibly, is a great relationship. We may go into these relationships having these hang-ups, but we may also develop them. If the latter, is it because we want to self-destruct and be unhappy? If the former, is it the same question with the same answer?

I’ve noticed when I’m in yoga class I’ll make a full scan of the room, not in a lurid fashion, certainly not creepy, but I’ll peruse the females and do simple assessments of their bodies. I notice their imperfections (in my mind) and how they could improve a certain area, or in some instances, how other assets offset what I perceived as deficiencies. I’ve also found that in that scenario I’m much more forgiving. “I could date her.” Or, “Such-and-such doesn’t bother me.” But when it comes to the real world setting of dating, I become a much sterner taskmaster and my expectations far exceed what I’m bringing to the table. Sometimes I wonder what females think of me if they happen to scan the room; more often than not I probably wouldn’t want to know. I assume they’re just as despicable as I am. And maybe that’s the problem.

In David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” video, he says that maybe we should take into consideration what we don’t know about others, what their day might’ve been like, how much they hate the mundanity of life like we, too, do. Applied here, maybe we (I) should consider that life is not perfect, easy, always fun, always as planned, and therefore neither should our (my) expectations of what someone we (I) might date might be. Maybe our (my) expectations get a little too lofty, and our (my) heart(s) a little too cold. We’re conditioned, true, but we also possess the ability to decondition. While our (my) reaction might be that her ___ is too ___, our (my) response should be that maybe she is also a good person with a good heart, and really funny too. But the negotiation of the reaction and the response occurs in a split second; sometimes we cannot navigate it quick enough to take the higher route. But maybe we can recondition ourselves to take the more humane route over time.

I was talking to a friend about a mutual friend’s relationship and how his girlfriend didn’t meet many of the aesthetic standards I prized as required, but that I thought she was intelligent, interesting and funny, not to mention a total sweetheart. He said to me, “So he loves the person not the shell.” And most likely so. But how do you love the person when the first thing you’re faced with is the shell? And more importantly, how do you adjust your expectations of what role the shell plays? As you might’ve guessed I’m a vain person. But juxtaposed against that is the simple fact of my own personal awareness that I’m not quite good looking enough to be as vain as I am (or as intelligent or talented). But is anybody? Vanity isn’t becoming, so how does it become? A guy or gal who is a “Perfect Ten” is not anymore welcome to be vain than Humpty Dumpty or the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and certainly not more deserving to be.

I’d like to think that because I see myself as self-aware I can mute this reaction and condition my response in these situations. I’d like to think I can stifle my expectations. I’d like to think I can love the person, not the shell. I’d like to think I could be like Jack Black’s character in Shallow Hal and go beyond the body. I’d also like to think I’ll retire soon and never have to go grocery shopping again. Neither of those will happen, so why would my visual consumption and visceral desires change? Maybe there is a certain happiness in vanity. Maybe it is inherent to the human to desire certain representations of another human. After all, as they say, the heart wants what the heart wants. But if the heart can’t get it, then do we dwell in our own self-created miseries? Do we make concessions and compromises to savor some of the human experience? If so, isn’t that disrespectful to those we settle for? Maybe love interests have simply become just like the rest of our materialist culture and we don’t want to buy off the bargain bin or wear the factory rejects of romance. We live in an individualistic, designer, me-now society, so why wouldn’t we want, and expect, the best for ourselves? If we’re not supposed to settle in life, why would we settle in love? So maybe it is that vanity reminds us where our happiness lays, even if that happiness is unattainable, at least it exists in theory. If it exists in theory, then all that remains is for it to be tested. And if those tests are confirmed every time we see a certain type of person, then maybe our vanity should be viewed as goal orientation. And maybe the test of our true selves is the ability to go after what we want. And then when we get it, we find that it falls short anyhow and we start again. Sisyphus kept pushing the stone, we keep pushing away our happiness. The only difference is that Sisyphus was content, we, it seems, never are.

Marco Esquandoles
Bad Apple

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