Good-looking

There’s a passage by the best-selling author and philosopher, Alain de Botton, that makes me laugh like … well, “like a parent on the opening night of a school play.”

… my priority was to be liked, rather than speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel … I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable. When passing through customs or driving alongside police cars, I harboured a confused wish for the uniformed officials to think well of me.*

Priceless. I see myself as an seven-year-old walking down the street in a new dress with my mother and sister, holding my sister’s hand for once, preening and thinking to myself  “Everyone will think we’re so good.” Or my father, driving the five of us, telling us to “sit up straight” as we passed a police car.

Wanting people to think well of us, wanting to look good, is universal, fundamental and the root of much anxiety and difficulty. It was running the show in a story I heard yesterday.

***

A writer was invited to speak at a conference about happiness and its “causes”. For some time leading up to the event he was worried because he did not feel happy. How was he going to speak on happiness to 1,000 people when he was feeling unhappy?

The event went ahead and he spoke on this and that, and did not come clean that he was struggling. A little while later he did come clean, though not with the original audience. He confessed to his blog audience instead, and his unhappiness over the lie was still palpable.

His story has a number of interesting angles. You can look at it from the angle of integrity. From everything this man has written in the past, the absence of integrity will be eating him alive. It also vividly demonstrates our desire to look good. It was so strong in him, as it is in all of us, that it overrode his desire to be honest, even though honesty is what he regards as the “calling card” of all his writing. Do you get that? His desire to look good at the conference – his desire to be seen as a happy person – trumped what most mattered to him, the very essence of his identity.  Small wonder he’s feeling miserable.

There are a number of things he can do to restore his sense of self, but that’s a post for another day.

Consider that true freedom, true peace of mind, happiness even, lies in giving up our desire to look good.

***

* Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

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9 thoughts on “Good-looking

  1. Tough one there. Doesn’t seem like it should be but he was hired to speak on happiness, so he couldn’t very well change his course. Sometimes, we grin and bear it, I guess.

    Interesting analogy I have is once I was going through customs and it was a two-day trip. Naturally, I was a bit tired. Going to this particular country made me a tad nervous. The customs guy, whom I had difficulty understanding said I didn’t look happy. He then gave me the cover of my passport and held my passport. Once I understood him, I started to look happy. A terrible game to play. Anyway…

    Perhaps these notions we grow up with; respecting authority, exuding a positive spirit when we don’t necessarily feel it gives way to illusions we can’t always live up to. It’s actually pretty stressful. We’ve all done it, however. To get by. To create a different mood that what we actually feel. Etc. I’ve heard people say, ‘I feel so fake. They’re gonna find me out.’ I can identify with that too. I think, too, when we want something, not being authentic can fairly common, maybe?

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    • Chilling game. Reminds me of being a young woman and being told by men to “smile”. I used to resent it something fierce. Also reminds me of being hauled off and interrogated by customs when I first visited the US. Airports I think are where everyday life gets terribly exaggerated.

      I agree with you, we’re often getting by, being fake. Common as dirt. And stressful and deeply dissatisfying.

      I’ve been thinking about the man in the story and the choices he had. I’ve been noticing that he saw he had only two: lie or look bad/foolish. I reckon there were others he didn’t see …

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  2. Thought provoking. Where is the line between trying too hard to look good and not caring what kind of impact you have on other people? Like the proverbial white lie, isn’t a little hypocrisy needed for social interactions to work? I guess it’s when you stop being who you really are and start being what you think other people want you to be.

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      • Yes–as it relates to the happiness speaker. A talk about his unhappiness might have been a perfect exploration of the subject–it might have given both him and the audience insights.

        I was thinking about more quotidian human interactions. Like the doctor who has to give a disturbing diagnosis might show more empathy than he or she can be muster in the circumstances.

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      • Yes, exactly, giving a talk about his feeling of unhappiness could have opened up a whole new realm for him and his audience, something beyond what he could have envisaged or predicted. It had the potential to be hugely powerful and it was staring him in the face, inviting him, even daring him.

        I see the doctor has an absolute obligation to speak with honesty, transparency, integrity. In all cases, in all circumstances. Can’t find empathy? Tough. Find it! Or give up medicine.

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  3. I have a feeling that the magnetic pull to appear to be or look good would disappear if we, in our hearts, knew that we always did the “right” thing. If we are acting for the sake of “righteousness,” or in other words, not based on selfishness, but on selflessness, there is a certain absolute confidence in oneself that appears. If I ever find myself concerned with appearance, I remember to look into the depths of my heart and mind to consider what is really important. I know that it’s not what I look like or how I appear to others, but it is WHO I am (and by that, I mean, what I think about, how I treat others, what I feel in my heart, how much I give, how thankful I am). I feel that if I’m really living with purpose, I won’t have time to be concerned about what others think. I’ll be more concerned to be a leader, to help others and to creatively influence the world around me. Anyway, you open a huge topic and here are just a few of my thoughts.

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    • I appreciate your thoughts, Mrs Falconer; they’re very powerful. Thank you.

      I agree with you that this experience of oneself as selfless, as a leader, as being of service to others has the concerns about looking good fall away. And then the beautiful simple confidence, born of experiencing ourselves as whole and complete, emerges.

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