“Be your beautiful unicorn self!”
“I don’t care what people think! I am who I am.”
How many times have you said, posted, and shouted this into the void of your heart yet still find yourself affected by people’s comments at the end of the day? As much as we want to embody the cool-hippy-I-don’t-give-a-flying-frick attitude, we often find ourselves hurt by other’s indifference or hostility towards us; or feel elated when people agree or even admire us. A good example of that would be an edgy youth posting “I don’t need others’ approval.” online just to get the rush feeling of acceptance when others like this status.
To put it more simply, we, more or less, crave the acceptance from others around us.
To crave acceptance or even admiration from other people is called vanity (as opposed to pride). In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen made a very clear distinction between the two.
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others thing of us.” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Well, you’d say, that’s good and all because if the peer pressure is for the good of the society, then it’s not a bad thing. For example, rich people might be pressured into charity which means well, more money for the poor. Some Berk Sloy kids might even be pressured to finally spend 10 minutes a day in a rational manner and realize they are Berk Sloy for no good reasons.
That’s good… isn’t it?
Well, not really… because:
- Vanity is not honor.
when you do something solely (or mostly) for the sake applause from others, it’s not “real”. You might think it’s honorable for a rich woman to donate to charity, but if she’s doing it for the applause of her social media followers, then that’s not honor, that’s just vanity. The same rich woman, had she done the deed because her conscience told her to would have been honorable. Vanity needs applause while honor does not. You might ask yourself, well, what’s so wrong about doing something for applause (*side-eyeing Lady Gaga)? If you are in the habit of doing that, you’ll one day end up with a mucky sense of self no matter how many good things you have done. They will feel hallow because satisfaction comes from doing what you believe in. And to believe in something takes a great deal of deliberate thinking, feeling and comparing on your part until your heart and mind see the decision as right for the sake of being right.Cambodia has witnessed a rise in volunteerism. As long as you have a long experience of volunteering, you are deemed as cool in the eyes of younger people. They aspire to help the community also, but how many of these volunteers would still do the dirty work if they couldn’t talk about it or post it on social media? If the whole society is against volunteering, how many would still do what they do? I imagine it won’t be much.
- Vanity leads to mediocrity and rarely mastery.
Vanity can give you application but not real “taste”. Some people, especially artists and volunteers, grow more and more discontented in their work because they are doing it for the society, for the likes, or for the needy instead of truly enjoying their craft, instead of working for the sake of enjoyment from their work and creation. That means you can be good at something, but probably never master it or derive the most satisfaction you should have gotten from it because you might not like it that much after all.How can you develop a real “taste” that truly makes your craft unique? Well, that needs a lot of love from your part.To master something needs commitment and hours and hours of hard work to achieve a certain vision, and in this age of easy likes and admiration from the online community, I feel it’s hard for someone without maximum love for their craft to break out of mediocrity.
Take, Vincent Van Gogh, for example. Though his work is celebrated all around the world today, he was a nobody, well, a broke nobody during his life time. His paintings were seldom recognized, and his family was pretty much opposed to his decision in being an artist. If he had succumbed to vanity and social pressure, he might have been able to provide for himself comfortably as a commercial artist (the modern equivalent of a graphic designer perhaps) or an art dealer. However, he had a better vision, a vision of colors that he lived and died for. The extent of love and beauty he found in his craft (even when the world was indifferent to it) is truly shocking in this collection of letters to his brother.
“[…] and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?” ~ Vincent Van Gogh, Ever Yours: The Essential Letters.
Might I emphasize the fact that he was living on a shoestring budget that was mostly sponsored by his brother (an act which plagued and made Vincent guilty his whole life). Again, he could have abandoned his particular style of art, and embraced the commercially-prosperous popular style (which was more realistic) at the moment because he could pretty much draw this at the age of nine. NINE!
Had he embraced the public opinion’s of what constituted a good painting, he would have had Vincent the realistic and well-off painter rather than Vincent Freaking Van Gogh, the master of impressionist colors.
- Knowledge vs. wisdom.
To be very susceptible to the opinions of others around you means you are less likely to dare to break off from the norms even when it’s necessary. And I’m not only saying this to old conservative people, I’m also side-eyeing, you, the young millennial who thinks you are untouched by social conventions. You might think you’re not controlled by Khmer society, but I bet you are more or less affected by western standards: 6-pack-abs, traveling, entrepreneurship, environmentalism, yoga, fitness, tanned-skin, art-loving. Ring a bell, anyone?I’m not saying you shouldn’t be into any of this (God knows I’m like half of these already myself), or that to be inspired by an idea is bad. No. I’m just saying that you need to take a closer look at your desire to do these things. Have they been sufficiently digested to make them your own, or did you adopt them because you thought it was the right thing to do (because westerners are doing it)? For that’s when knowledge and wisdom depart. Knowledge is merely knowing something whereas wisdom is something you get by reflecting and digesting the knowledge you have gained. Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin puts it very clearly by saying:
“Even when what [beliefs] has been handed down is true, it is not your truth. To merely accept anything without questioning it is to be someone else’s puppet, a second-hand person. Beliefs can be handed down. Knowledge can be handed down. The goal of philosophy is wisdom. […] Wisdom requires questioning what is questionable. Since everything is questionable, wisdom requires questioning everything. That is what philosophy is- the art of questioning everything.” ~ Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin, The Experince of Philosophy
“The cool white people are doing it; therefore, I must also do it.” That’s as bad as “My parents have done it; therefore, I must also do it.”
- Vanity leads to status anxiety.
Now as if the previous three effects are not bad enough for our satisfaction in life, vanity or caring excessively of others’ perception of us causes a type of anxiety termed by Alain de Botton as status anxiety. (Check out his documentary and short video on the subject). Status, you should know, is your place in society and it subsequently dictates how you should behave, and treated by other people.Before democracy and capitalism, status was pretty much a fixed thing. You could not do much to change your status which was probably assigned to you by birth. If you were born into a wealthy or a royal family, you would be automatically deemed as honorable and worthy of respect. Praises would be sung in your honor and people would bow when you walked by. Your neighbour would not dare to let their dogs shit on your lawn. If you were born into a peasant family, there was nothing much you could do other than to farm, maybe slave for one temple or two, have 8 kids and die. All of its disturbing and unethical effects aside, this sort of society had one benefit ours do not. It decreased the anxiety we had regarding our status in life. We KNEW our places and was forced to be contented because there was nothing much to do about it anyway.Well, that’s obviously not the case now. The self-made-person is all the rage these days. Our new trend is to make your own life no matter where you came from. We have the power to become successful, the self-help authors tell us. While that’s liberating, it also leaves us with a sense of uneasiness and fear. Above all, it left the definition of success pretty much open.
If you were born as a peasant 1,000 years ago in Cambodia, you would be deemed successful if your fields were fertile, you married well, and your children survived. If you are born as a peasant now, what would be called success? Some would say if you could care for your fields, you would be successful. Others would say, ditch your fields, become a business-person and make a million dollars. Some would tell you to become a scholar and write poems about how much you miss the green fields. The problem lies not in any of these choices, but in your justification for the choice. If you mostly depend your choice upon what others praise, then it’s problematic.
To illustrate this, let’s say this happened during the golden 60’s when being teacher was the most honorable thing a Khmer citizen could be. They said being a teacher, you could inspire the next generations of kids, you could serve your country and culture. These seemed reasonable enough and so you decided to ditch your fields, and made for Phnom Penh to become a teacher. All was well and good until you time-travelled and arrived in 2017 when teaching has become a minor thing and a successful entrepreneur is what everybody is told to aspire to be.
You decide to continue teaching, but something is missing now. Teaching becomes less of an enjoyment, and more of a chore. You see? We fall into this trap very easily because if you look hard enough, there are always good reasons to do one thing or another. Teaching has its pros; so does being an entrepreneur or an artist, or a hermit. When you choose something (because it’s popular) and justify your decision by listing all the good things you’ve heard others said, you’re falling into the tricky trap of disguised vanity and status. You’re making yourself vulnerable to the changing tide of public opinion as to who deserves what level of “status” in this society. This makes you more prone to want to be in the “loop” as to what’s popular at the moment, and more and more anxious to stay relevant.
You start posting selfies with long motivational captions. You record yourself doing ridiculous stuff for fame and a few likes from your friends or a thousand from your fans. You slave yourself away everyday to work on something you have no real passion in for the sake of being called “inspiring”.
See? Falling trap to vanity leads you status anxiety which in turns leads to a lack of life satisfaction, and many many embarrassing photos online and maybe even years of toiling in the wrong field.
So what then? If vanity is so bad, then why can’t we seem to get out of it? You are vain, I am vain, we are all vain. That’s because we are social animals. We’re literally wired to feel good when we fit in and bad when we’re isolated (because that would mean dying out of the pack). Does that mean we can never escape it? Maybe, but I believe we can always become aware of it and consequently decrease vanity’s influences on us. How? Read part II of the series here!