I began writing about vanity several years ago, but only now do I feel like I can understand the amount of aggression imbued in this erotic pleasure we all have of showing off to attract admiration or desire.
We expend considerable time and energy to attract other people’s attention—even of those who don’t interest us at all. Most people care a great deal about our appearance and even the disheveled realize their supposed nonchalance makes them stand out. But it’s not only looks: people also flaunt material possessions and all sorts of accomplishments, whether professional, artistic or sports-related.
A person’s assessment of their self improves, and thus their self-esteem grows from performing work or any other activity that is enjoyable and in accordance to their own convictions. On the other hand, the pleasures of vanity derive from acting in accordance to other people’s assessment of them, based on their beliefs. However, vanity is rarely experienced as secondary to self-esteem.
We are always comparing ourselves to others and when we feel “lesser than,” because something is missing, we immediately feel humiliated—that is, we feel like losers in the flaunting game. We do what we can to escape it; humiliation is one of the most painful feelings that we can experience.
The pain of humiliation is a constant risk, because we live in a society that fiercely promotes all kinds of competition, and prizes all kinds of success that only very few people can achieve. I call accomplishments that only very few people can ever reach “aristocratic joys.” They are beauty, wealth, intelligence or natural, extraordinary athleticism: rare qualities that condemn the rest of humankind to unhappiness.
In fact, possessing even one of those qualities might not be enough. In such a competitive society, in which all must be so focused on ambition in order to reach extraordinary results and attract all the attention, everyone always feels like they are lacking something “essential.” For instance, an exceptionally smart person might feel frustrated because they are not beautiful enough, and become extremely resentful. Competitiveness abounds, and frustration is the result, as everyone feels they were not granted enough talents.
So we become resentful, bitter and vengeful. We use our qualities, whether they are intelligence, beauty, eloquence or audacity to get revenge on those who humiliate us with qualities we do not have. It’s an almost universal phenomenon: almost everyone is angry with everyone else, and it becomes a vicious cycle of flaunting, humiliation and revenge.
It is not uncommon for little girls to think that boys have access to more than they do, and they feel hindered and frustrated by their fate. Once they become teenagers and attractive to boys, they turn their sensual power into a weapon and humiliate those same boys, who are now at their feet. And sometimes, gentle boys who were bullied when they were kids for being shorter, chubbier or terrible at sports might discover they are smart and good at school and turn their gifts into weapons, crushing those who humiliated them with their knowledge and whatever success they might achieve.
Our sexuality, of which vanity is an essential part, is upsettingly compromised by aggressiveness in an almost irrecoverable way. Men and women have been battling fiercely, to everyone’s loss. This association between sex and aggression is so radical that many couples who truly love each other can barely have a sexual relationship, because sex is so connected with aggression in people’s minds that it distances itself from the tenderness that exists between two people who love each other.
Vanity contaminates everything, not just sex and love; even the world of knowledge and education, which is as important to human well-being as sexuality, is also contaminated by its aggression, which is not conducive to learning and fellowship, but to a chain of drastic errors. It’s not surprising that in a world built like this we are a step away from total self-destruction.
I believe it’s essential to reflect about vanity; competition; the emphasis given to exceptional qualities only few can have in detriment of others that everyone can, such as solid character, discipline and emotional competence; and just how much all of this is inescapable.
Yes, because we live in a time in which all of this aggression is attributed to natural selection, to battle of the strongest among us, to reproduce and bring forth even more violent descendants. But if we treat it as inevitable, we’ll have to conclude that this process, once at service of the advancement and improvement of the species, will now bring the end of times.
Tradução: Amanda Morris