How Bad (or Good) is Vanity?
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“Vanity is a mark of humility rather than pride.” –Jonathan Swift (taken from BrainyQuote)
Vanity is, on the surface, usually viewed as a negative—one of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, on a deeper level, it is a bit more complicated and, I believe, worth contemplating. Vanity is most often defined either in terms of pride (or ‘inflated pride’ according to the Merriam Webster definition) or in terms of value, with vanity meaning something without value. What is always present with vanity is judgment, which is how vanity can get pretty complex. If person A calls person B vain based on how person B dresses, how do we know the truth? Perhaps person B is vain, and their dress reveals that their character has inflated pride, and they spend time and fortune on something valueless. But, what if the truth was the other way around? What if the fault was in judgment and not vanity? What if person A’s judgment of person B revealed their own inflated pride (in being so judgmental), and what if person A was busying himself with worthless judging? In researching vanity, it was clear there was not a solid answer in where the truth lies, and it wholly depended on the temperament of the writer. I think both are part of human nature—vanity and judgment—and both can be morally wrong if taken to the extreme.
Let’s start with the ugly aspect of vanity. To be sure, pride in oneself is positive on the whole and can give us the confidence to pursue our dreams and ambitions in life in the realm of everything from love to career. However, it would not be singled out as one of the big seven sins if there were not a downside to vanity. In an article entitled Man’s Struggle with Vanity: The Subtler Form of Pride by Terrance Layhew (June 4, 2018, Gentlemen Lifestyle), the author makes a very keen point: “The danger of the vanity sin is that it truly weakens the stuffing of a man. It causes him to covet the flattery of others, purposing every action for acknowledgment and praise.” It was, in my opinion, a very genius insight. Vanity and judgment always go hand in hand. Vanity cannot arise without judgment. Things can go south when one starts to base their work and energy on generating positive judgment from others. It will weaken one’s inner resolve and ability to face adversity. Sometimes the wise, good, and morally right thing to do will make you very unpopular. If you have become addicted to praise, then it will weaken your ability to stand up for what is right. History is clear that very few of our heroes were ‘yes men.’ Vanity is the other side of the coin of judgment, and to be overly concerned and occupied with the judgment of others can weaken a person’s sense of worth, resolve, and dignity.
“I agree with Winston Churchill when he called vanity ‘that vice that promotes so many virtues.’” (The Bright Side of Vanity: What’s so Bad About Using Vanity to Motivate Healthy Behaviors? By Meg Selig, Aug. 7, 2013, psychologytoday.com) And there it is…the awesome good side of vanity: it makes us lose weight, cut back on vice, strive to get good grades, or strive to excel in sports. Essentially, vanity is a weird spark of insecurity (as Jonathan Swift pointed out) mixed with a splash of pride. I have never worked out or have gone on a diet for health. That is the truth. Of course, if I wanted to sound morally superior, I would say something like, “While looking good is a great side effect of working out, I do it so I can be healthy.” What motivates me to work out every day is that I want to look good, and I view the health part as a great side effect. Health by itself is not going to get me up at five during the winter in Boston to go running, and I am not alone. Studies have shown that vanity is a great motivator for many people—as often, things like health are too abstract for a person to emotionally connect to it. Everyone can emotionally connect to wanting to look good.
Vanity certainly has a downside. It can cause us to become overly concerned with the opinions of others, thereby weakening our sense of self. Vanity can be good too, as it can motivate us to lose weight, quit smoking, or work hard at our jobs. I think the important part is to consider vanity. Is there any place in your life where your vanity has gone off the rails a bit, or any time you have been too harsh a judge?
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.