Vanity, Mortality, and Choices

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 “Vanity[a] of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

3 What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
4 One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
5 The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
6 The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
7 All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
8 All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.

–Ecclesiastes, 1, 1-11, New King James Version

Some of the best conversations are those that never really end. They are conversations between friends that may take place in both the physical and the virtual, and may vary across the synchronous and the asynchronous. It’s a conversation about something shared that allows for multiple threads of thought. Sometimes one of these threads takes a startling turn.

“Vanity is an interesting companion to morality. ”

Indeed it does. On the other hand, my minor dyslexia has caused me to read this as “mortality” for two whole days. So that’s the way I have I have been thinking of this conversation. Vanity and mortality.

Contextually, I was thinking about mortality and a scene in fantasy novel where one of the antagonists admits that it was his vanity that got him in the end. More directly I was making a link between weight and typical aesthetics. There are some things I do strictly vanity’s sake, but to only a small degree, because too much could be risky or counter-productive.  My thoughts rambled further, thinking about a delicate balance between vanity and mortality, that we’ve upheld certain ideas of fitness and wellness that sometimes look like vanity, but really they are just personal pride in looking a certain way and achieving or constantly striving to achieve a peak level of fitness.

Back when Billy Crystal was on SNL doing an impression of Fernando Lamas, one of his catch phrases was, “It’s better to look good, than to feel good.” This is kind of the ultimate in the vanity of the aesthetic. Perhaps an example of the other end of the spectrum is the runner who really obsesses over running and does little else, while becoming so whittled down,  any standard sense of a traditional aesthetic has vanished. I’ve known a person like this and he was not healthy.

Sometime around 2004 or 2005 I was in Clearwater, FL for a meeting and I went out for a morning run. About three miles in, I ran into an old guy coming towards me. He asked how far I was running and if he could join me. Told him I had done three and planned another nine miles. He looked me up and down, “I’m impressed. You don’t look like quite that fit.” (I was weighing about 250 at the time and had done a couple of marathons, three successful ultras, and a couple of failed ultras.) I looked him up and down, “I’m impressed  that you’re out here running in flip-flops.”

“Oh yeah, they’re good enough and they only cost about a buck apiece.”


We ran and talked for a couple hours. He was certifiably nutty. Nice, but nutty. Retired and lived in a one room apartment and did very little but just run everyday, all day. He’d carry a spoon and a little bit of cash to buy ice cream along the way to eat while he ran. Sometimes he would just carry a bag of sugar. He claimed he usually ran a full 50K (about 31 miles) and never less than 16 miles each day.

Every day it was all he could do to just get out of bed, he said. It just hurt. Every part of him hurt. Especially his feet and legs. He’d wake up, struggle to a sitting position, sit until he felt he could stand, and then do it all again. He had no discernible fat on his body, nor teeth. He admitted sometimes to spending the winter up north with his family and trying to get “fat” and then return to Clearwater to run it off.

I have no idea how long someone can keep that up.  I don’t think he was as old as he looked, and he really did not look good to my eye. He looked like he was in the process of being consumed. Whatever level of fitness he might have once been trying to achieve he seemed to have taken it too far to a fairly dark place. You can take anything too far.


And conversations continue.

“The challenge with deciding to live, not just accepting the body’s deteriorating condition, is really about why.”

While we are young, we feel immortal. Even when someone in our age cohort dies it may shake us, but it seems like we don’t really start feeling mortal until age 30 or so. I remember when one of the guys in our Infantry company died. A popular guy, he took a fall off a cliff while rappelling one weekend. While the guys were pretty shaken, since beer and pot were involved, invincibility and immortality was back in less than a week.

By the time we comprehend and accept, or at least begin to accept, our mortality, our bodies have long since begun to deteriorate. One might stay fit and train at the highest levels, but the fact is the body is aging and wearing.  This is all in the early stages of deterioration for most people, it’s generally not even noticeable. It is the time of life where late night hours are spent in childcare or the endless work cycle of trying to get ahead. Things change though. Harry Chapin touched on this in the song, “There Was Only One Choice.”

When I started this song I was still thirty-three
The age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free 
Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charley Parker would be 
And I fantasized some tragedy’d be soon curtailing me 
Well just today I had my birthday — I made it thirty-four
Mere mortal, not immortal, not star-crossed anymore 
I’ve got this problem with my aging I no longer can ignore 
A tame and toothless tabby can’t produce a lion’s roar 
And I can’t help being frightened on these midnight afternoons


So we age. Our attitudes age along with our bodies. We begin to recognize the costs of choices we made in our youth and we likely become more cautious, more conservative in our choices. Less recklessness, greater thought for the future.

Because there is less of it, the future. Less of it for us as individuals. We know the future is not some far distant point in time. It keeps getting closer. A friend talks about how small children see time as taking so much longer – a year from now is just so very far away. For a five year-old, a year is 20% of the time they know. For a 50 year-old, it is only two percent. The days run out as we want to do more, to be more, to achieve more, because we finally feel like we know what we want to do, what we can do.

But we grow tired. We tend to be heavier. Our choices have begun to maximize comfort over fitness. We have perhaps actively chosen this, or just accepted the default. Either way, have we chosen to live, or to just continue? And why?


Back to the intersection of vanity and morality.

In Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” we get a morality lesson on vanity. The title character is so enamored of his  portrait and recognizes that every day he on he will be less beautiful than he appears in the portrait, that he offers to sell his soul if only the portrait would age instead of himself. It does not go well. That sort of vanity never does end well. The weakness in Dorian that expresses his willingness to sell his soul is the same weakness of character that leads one into all kinds of debauchery and unsavory activity, activities that affect both physical expression and the aesthetic appearance of the face. These qualities become apparent in the portrait as Dorian’s behavior and soul grow darker and more cruel.

Vanity, narcissism, too much of sense of self over others, are problems. When the inner dialogue is the only dialog that matters. When we never hear the words of others if they are anything short of praise for the self. This is not only bad, it is evil. It is a turning away from society, from community. We don’t exist alone.


How do we choose to live with the deterioration of our bodies?

Either following my diagnosis, or following surgery, in my researches, I read that events like heart attacks, brain tumors, cancer, can cause one to to feel that our body has betrayed us. That it has attacked us. This can be devastating to someone trying to find the energy and will do the work of recovery.

It seems to me, looking back, there was no defining moment in my case where I said was going to get through recovery. There were instead of thousands of little decisions to keep trying, to try just one more time, to take one more step, or to forgive myself one more time for not quite taking that next step. Eventually it became a habit, the same way I became obese, the same way I got older. I kept making certain decisions out of habit, a choice to keep to going. And then I made a choice to get healthy again, and this time I would do it right. I would avoid injury and real self-abuse. I would learn from the past about making thousands of little choices over and over again, including choices of self-forgiveness.

In fact, I made the choice to be much more forgiving to myself and stop with negative habits toward a poor sense of self. I accepted that failure in little things, was to be expected, and that success did not, does not require perfection, only commitment and practice.

In the end, there was really only one choice – to live each day, to be present each day that is left. But like the Preacher says, there is nothing new under the sun.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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