Perspectives: Vanity ~ The Romance Of The Vain
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The Romance Of The Vain
When we hear the word 'vanity' today, we think of someone spending more time than they ought to fiddling with themselves in front of a mirror, someone overly attentive to their appearance, someone who frets more about what others think of their looks than they fret about the quality of their own character. But the reason we've come to use the word 'vanity' to express this shallow preoccupation with physical attributes is because the origin of the word 'vanity' actually has to do with a thing of no real value or measurable worth.
The English word 'vain' comes from the old English 'wane', which means to diminish or decrease . . . so, if someone's attention begins to fade during a lecture or film, etc, we say 'his interest is beginning to wane', or as Spring approaches we might say 'the winter chill is waning'. And from the old word 'wane' we got our use of the word 'want' or 'wanting' to suggest a lack or deficit. So the ideas to diminish or decrease and a lack or deficit are all behind the word 'vain' or 'vanity' . . . when we say that a person is vain we are saying that they give their attention to something that is empty or worthless.
The great question is, I believe, why do so many empty, fading, worthless things claim our interest so urgently and irresistibly? There is something in the very nature of consciousness that things of no real value can appeal to - all parents know the empty promise that dangling keys before an infant offers, yet we all know the sheer delight in the face of so young a human as they gaze at those shiny, tinkling nothings that are useless to them. As we grow, it seems an intrinsic component of human nature to be easily distracted by shiny, loud, new, and different - without reference to any genuine worth or actual value, if it is shiny, loud, new, or different we are too instantly and easily distracted.
As there is no real, substantial worth to things like other's counting us pretty, everyone knowing who we are, having more stuff than we could ever actually use, etc, we are not authentically benefiting directly from any of these things . . . being good looking doesn't fill our stomachs, being famous doesn't keep us warm, having 25 million dollars doesn't really get us anything that 5 million wouldn't get us. These things, in themselves, are vain, they are empty, the only value they have is in fulfilling our own concocted desires for them - like dangling keys before a baby, their more immediate, direct purpose serves only to distract us. So then it seems, the real and consequential question is; what is it that vanity distracts us from? What are the things of this life, of ourselves, that fixating on how others feel about our appearance, that seeking fame, that lusting after abundance, etc, are distracting us from?
from "The Vanity Of The World" by John Newton
Thus in the desert's dreary waste,
By magic pow'r produc'd in haste,
As old romances say,
Castles and groves, and music sweet,
The senses of the trav'ller cheat,
And stop him in his way;
But while he gazes with surprise,
The charm dissolves, the vision dies;
'Twas but enchanted ground:
Thus, if the Lord our spirit touch,
The world, which promis'd us so much,
A wilderness is found.
There is an account in the Bible of Satan coming to Jesus and tempting Him with all the kingdoms of the world - what the devil uses to tempt Jesus with is told to us, but the question is also, what was Satan tempting Jesus from, what was he trying to lure Jesus away from doing? From the rest of Scripture we know that Jesus came with a purpose, He had a work to do, He was on a mission - Jesus came to earth, He took upon Himself human flesh, Jesus was in fact born . . . so that He could die. Satan was, in a sense, dangling shiny, pretty keys in front of Jesus hoping that Jesus would be distracted from His purpose, His work, the thing that only He could do.
I think this is a healthy and useful way for us to look at the vain things that this world dangles before us . . . being thought of as pretty, being famous, being rich, etc, are all worthless, empty things that distract us from the true beauty, the genuine achievement, the authentic prosperity & treasure that we were designed and created to enjoy. We too have been put on earth, we have been given life, because we too have a purpose, we too have a work to do, we too are on a mission . . . and the empty, worthless things of this world have an appeal for us because evil is trying to distract us from why we exist, what we're here for.
The eternal reality behind the material world that our senses inform us of, the truth we can't discover or figure-out, that we can only know through revelation, happily IS revealed to us. God tells us that we were made and put here to love Him and to love our neighbor. Our earthly life is the process God has established through which we learn the truth about love . . . the truth about the 'self' and about unity. This great mystery, how we can fully be the individual souls that God made us to be and yet be united together with Him and with all His children, this seeming puzzle of the one and the many, this is the lesson, this is what we're here learning in this world.
And, this is what evil wants to hinder us from learning. The corruption of this world is that everything God has designed to teach us about 'self' and unity has been contaminated with selfishness . . . God wants us to understand the dynamic of relationship, so He makes us individuals and then instructs us to marry, saying that as two we then become one. The world then comes along dangling the 'shiny keys' of marrying over and over again, of taking your neighbor's spouse, of forcing yourself on someone you're not married to, etc, etc.
God wants us to understand the dynamic of relationship, so He enables us to reproduce, to become a family, to be parents. The world then comes along dangling the 'shiny keys' of abuse, incest, neglect, etc, etc. All the things that God has established to teach us about oneness and wholeness, all the things that are to draw us closer to Him, we have corrupted and so this world twists . . . the world offers us things that feed our lust, that nurse our appetites and desires. The world provides fuel for our selfishness . . . because selfishness, not hate but selfishness, is the opposite of love. And love is the source and accomplishment of relationship, love is the perfect bond of unity.
We are supposed to be learning love, the dynamic of relationship, because we are supposed to be growing to be both fully the 'us' that God created us to be and to be growing in our union with Him and His people - and love is that perfect bond of unity. So, if this world wants to distract us from learning love, it appeals to our self-interest. When we give our attention to how pretty we can make ourselves, when we desire fame, when we seek after wealth, we are foolishly succumbing to the romance of the vain - we are wasting our time on things that simply do not matter in the end, we are trowing away our life.
We are here, we were given this life, not to relish all the temporary things that will crumble away when this life is over, but to grow and mature as the eternal souls that we are and to learn love, the perfect bond of unity. The vanity of the world, the empty and worthless things of the world, appeals to our most corrupt, selfish interests - love appeals to our highest self, love appeals to the 'us' God created us to be.