It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
– Oscar Wilde
Everybody – except maybe comedians – wants to be taken seriously.
I don’t mean that they need or want – except maybe undertakers – people to attend their every utterance with a solemn look and a furrowed brow. They just want others to judge them not by their beauty or intelligence – or lack thereof – but by their inner truth, by who They Really Are.
The woman who has put on 100 pounds since her wedding day yet can’t comprehend why her husband has developed a roving eye, the formerly adventurous young man turned beer-swilling, pot-bellied couch potato and can’t imagine why his wife no longer idolizes him: both are examples of the syndrome.
So too are supermodels who want to be admired for their brains rather than their looks or brainiacs who want to be seen as sex symbols instead of Nobel Prize winners. All of them – all of us, really – routinely forget that while things are not always what they appear to be, neither are they as different as we might like to think they are.
That’s a circuitous and philosophical introduction to my Question Of The Day. I’ve been writing a blog for six years now. One of the joys of having your own blog (or your own magazine, as I did from 1984 to 1995) is that you can write about absolutely anything you find interesting, which is exactly what I’ve always done. From the very first issue of Lookout, people would complain whenever I strayed from their particular field of interest: those who wanted to hear me ranting and raving about politics were angry when I wasted time talking about trivial things like punk rock; meanwhile, the punks complained that I never found space to write about their band yet could go on for pages and pages about boring stuff like the environment or education.
25 years later little has changed; the difference now is that most people read my writing on the internet and instead of bothering to complain when they disapprove of something, they do a quick click over to the next website. Meanwhile, I’ve written dozens (hundreds, even?) of thoughtful, hard-hitting articles about politics, the economy and the human condition, only to learn that the surest way to attract lots of readers is anything involving celebrities and gossip.
A few days ago I published the most widely read and commented-on story in my entire blogging career: it centered around the outraged reaction of some hardcore Green Day superfans to a couple paragraphs by Aaron Cometbus that they felt unfairly characterized them. The only story I’ve ever done that got close to that much attention was an offhanded commentary about Bret Michaels’ hair and/or what might be hiding under that unsightly do-rag of his.
What do I make of this? Simply accept that my true calling is to swap tittle-tattle and stir up meaningless controversies? Or redouble my efforts to be thoughtful and profound, despite having seen where it’s gotten me so far?
Am I the journalistic equivalent of the beauty contest winner who actually wants to end hunger and bring about world peace? The pop punk band that keeps trying to introduce a fourth or even a fifth chord into their otherwise catchy little ditties?
I’ll admit I’m less inclined these days to undervalue the world of superficial appearances or to overvalue the life of the mind, not because I assume one or the other is more or less important, but because the two are ultimately one and the same. We don’t see it that way most of the time, but only because we’re looking through a dualistic prism that tells us nonsense like “Looks don’t matter” or “It’s what’s inside that counts.”
Of course looks matter. They matter immensely. Trying to pretend – or fool oneself into believing – that they don’t has been the source of endless disappointment, conflict and mental illness. That holds true whether you’re talking about who you fall in love with, the sort of work you devote your life to, or the esteem in which you hold other people or yourself.
“At age 50, every man has the face he deserves,” said George Orwell, and while I wonder how he figured that out (having himself died at 46), I suspect it’s true even if you cut “at age 50” from the equation. Yes, a pretty, unblemished young face can mask a malevolent disposition, but not for long and only if you don’t look closely enough.
I think people make the mistake of believing that “growing up” (or growing old) means to accept, even revel in encroaching physical decrepitude while cultivating “higher things” like truth, wisdom, inner beauty, that sort of crap. In my opinion, this will never work, and by that I don’t mean it’s possible or even desirable to look 18 or 21 forever – well, maybe; let me get back to you on that one – but that the minute you start thinking you can trade external for internal beauty, the minute you think that the two can even be separated, you begin to lose both.
The same goes for “settling down” or “acting your age.” You don’t have to keep going out to dance clubs or punk rock shows or jumping out of airplanes in your 80s (though by all means do so if that’s what you enjoy) but you do have to bring the same sort of excitement and enthusiasm to whatever new passions engage you, whether it’s chess, knitting, or trekking across Antarctica.
So what does this have to do with Aaron Cometbus, Green Day, or legions of crusading superfans? Only that they are pursuing their passions, despite the disapproval of others, in the face of those who sneer, “Don’t you have anything more important to get excited about?”
And what I’m saying is that what’s truly important is the getting excited part, not what it’s about. Yes, I’d wonder, maybe even worry a little, about someone whose interests never moved beyond Bret Michaels’ hair or Billie Joe Armstrong’s new Twitter account, but the ability to have interests, intense, abiding ones, no less, already gives that person a vast head start over the quietly desperate masses who spend their lives wandering through the cloistered, claustrophobic rooms of their soul, methodically turning out the lights.