Vanity Wipe Part II: the How’s

In the last part of the Vanity Wipe series, we’ve gone through some reasons why vanity should be wiped out, or at least smudged to the best of our ability. Not only might it stand between you and mastery, caring excessively of others’ opinions (whether consciously or unconsciously) might lead to you waking up wide-eyed at 5AM twenty years from now, breaking a cold sweat because you have no idea who the person in the mirror is. (Read it more in-depth here).

So now you’re ready! You have the sponge in your left hand and gel in the right, ready to wipe this beast of a pest out of your life. I’m grateful for your enthusiasm, but maybe hang that sponge up and put your shower gel down for a moment. Bring out a comfortable hammock, and some mju because we might have to sit down and think… for quite some time. Because you see, in order to wipe out vanity, you need to figure out what will inherit its place first.

Like I said in the previous article, vanity is here because it benefits us. It gives us a sense of self-worth, albeit from other people. So before you think of going off life-support from applause, think first of what nectar your life will be absorbing next. The best answer, as anyone who has had some casual brushes with self-help books know, is to get that love from the well of our own hearts.

And as anyone who has tried could testify, getting approval from your own damn self is capital-h-a-r-d-HARD! However, before you kick off the sponge and shower gel to the corner, and storm off the bathroom accompanied by ugly sobbing, let me just say, it’s hard, but not impossible. It might take quite a long time (and I’m saying years and years of exploring, analyzing and making heaps mistakes), but it’s indeed achievable.

When Descartes realized his education was built upon false hand-me-down knowledge, he dedicated years of his life to examine all of his beliefs and put them back in (or out) one by one. That’s dedication for ya.

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Source: The School of Life

Start now. Begin observing your own actions. Ask yourself what you think about certain controversial issues.
“Do I agree with the current political discussion?”
“Is white skin the ideal beauty standard for me?”
“Do I find fit people more attractive?”
“Should pineapples be allowed to be put on pizzas?” (they should definitely not, just FYI)

Examine your beliefs and likings from topics as big as world politics to something as small as liking thin paper as opposed to rough paper, and anything in between. Then ask yourself, why? Why do I find people with six-pack abs better than a whole belly? Why did I spend 200 bucks on a plain white T-shirt with a five words on it? Why does thin paper feel so much better than rough paper?

Also ask yourself, would I still like people with six-packs if I could not show them off to my friends? Would I have bought that expensive T-shirt if no one could know about the brand or price? Would I still like thin paper if everyone around me hated it? Asking yourself thus can hopefully make things done for the sake of vanity visible. After seeing it for what it is- a mere trick to get the world’s attention- you should ask yourself further, of other reasons you might want to continue doing it. If the only main reason is applause, I’m sorry, buddy, but it’s time to put on the brake. It’s better to make space for what you genuinely enjoy than crowding your hours and headspace with mere attention-seeking actions.

Let me give you an obvious heads up, it’s going to be very unsettling, to say at least. I mean, when you question an activity that is central to your identity, it’s a discomforting experience, for sure. I used to think of myself as a visual art hobbyist, occasionally producing a sketch of a white nose here, a watercolor of waterfall there. During the questioning period, I suspected I was producing sketches, not because I enjoyed the ordeal, but instead because I wanted to get the attention of my perceived social media “followers”. Nothing to distinguish yourself among the rest like showing you’re a sensitive artist wanna-be, you know?

So I took a break from drawing/painting to really ascertain if I liked the craft for the sake of the craft, or for vanity. More than a year later, the dawn finally broke. I came to conclude that drawing added another dimension (pun-intended) to my existence, and it’s worth doing even without the “likes”. So I grabbed my old 2B pencils and began sketching squiggly faces again! The paintings probably have not changed much, but the painter is newly-colored with self confidence and a tad of detachment from public opinion. Whatever people may say of my craft, I know for certain now that I enjoy the brow-scrunching concentration needed to draw a straight line, the soul relief from heaping bold colors on top of one another, and the mind-blowing capacity (or more realistically, the hair-pulling frustration) to realize what’s in my head.

Now, it’s time for you to embark on your own journey. Again, the journey will probably take a lot of time and energy, but believe me, it’s worth it. This will be the foundation of how you’ll judge EVERYTHING from now on.

Would you rather be a dandelion swept left and right by the winds of public opinion, a swaying body devoid of soul, going where the current tells you, or would you rather be a willow seed, toiling for nourishment under the soil for a period of time, but end up growing on your own trunk, with healthy roots and ability to withstand the blowing storms?

This is also where the world outside, including and especially the fictional world comes in handy. When you know of a story- whether a piece of gossip from a celebrity magazine, the backstory of the much celebrated batman, or a piece of philosophical thought from some major thinker whose name you can’t pronounce- ask yourself, what do I think of this issue? Try to draw the parallels and contrasts between your life and the lives you know of. If your memory is not to be trusted, as most youths’ are, try out journaling. It’s an excellent means to maybe learn to express yourself better, and also make sense of what you are and what you want to be!

Now, the solution above might work for people who have little clue of what they like doing, but how about those for some reason, (most of the time embarrassment) dare not do what they would like? Well, here are some things that have helped me (and believe me, I’ve done some pretty embarrassing stuff):

  1. build a support system:
    it’s hard to go through the world alone, like a young bald bird, cold and flightless. Again, we are social animals, and we DO want approval from others. As Bertrand Russell put it:

    Head, Alfred Ernest, b.1923; Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
    Painter: Alfred Ernest Head 

    “Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.”

    The trick here is to choose whose approval you want. I am fortunate to befriend some people of the same values and so have benefited from their strong trunks through the storms of public opinion when mines are too feeble to withstand the rushing torrents. Seek out people with the same values, befriend them, and validate yourself with them when you’re unsure.

  2. Think about loss:
    yes, pretty morbid stuff, and a good morning to you, good sir!
    People of all ages have realized the danger of being attached to our possessions, as Seneca, a rich statesman frequently slept on the floor in a poor house just to assure himself that he could survive even without his riches and influence.
    Power corrupts, ‘tis true, so try to imagine yourself without the power -and power here can mean anything that makes you feel worthy: your appearance, riches, fame, heart or brain- will you survive? If all the wars in the world taught me anything, it’s to distrust a charming man with a toothbrush mustache, but also that humans are capable of surviving so much loss and grief without losing hope.
    No friend? I can find some more.
    Money got burnt? I only need some for basic survival anyway.
    Getting disfigured? My wit will still be intact.
    Everyone hates the sight of my face? My dog still loves me.
    Losing my wits due to schizophrenia? Well, I won’t remember it anyway.

    memento-mori-18
    Photographer: Kevin Best

    If you want to top it a notch, go all the way to the silky road where we will all end up in: death. I’ve written once about the benefits of visualizing death (read it here), but here’s the gist. Nothing is worse than death. It’s the end of your life, most likely forever as we know it. The riches, fame, or knowledge you have earned will be worth nothing in the face of death. The true but often neglected fact is, you will die one day. So why not do this one thing you have always wanted? Will the opinions of irrelevant people matter when you’re gasping your last breadth? I suspect not.

  3. The “I’m going to do it even if all these people will hate me” game.
    I came up with this game when I was unwilling to perform a pretty suggestive hip-thrust routine for fear of seeming improper, though through my thorough research it’s the most effective workout for butts in the gym. I had had an internal debate for days and days, until one day, I flat-out asked myself, “Say you do it and all these people end up concluding you’re an improper pervert, but you have amazing butts, what then?” The answer was obvious. It’s time to thrust, thrust, thrust. No one commented, and the weird coach still talked to me occasionally, so I guess I over-dramatized everything after all. Take note though, this game will only work if you have a clear purpose behind what potentially embarrassing thing you are about to do.
  4. The 5, 5, 5 question.
    Now before you let the fear of public opinion scare you from doing a certain thing you’re sure you want to do, ask yourself, “Will this matter in 5 minutes? 5 months? 5 years?” Most of the little things we are embarrassed about, like getting caught speaking to ourselves in our helmet, or having a slip-up during a presentation, or voicing the wrong views with confidence, are erased from people’s memories the minute after it happened. Even if it’s shocking, people rarely stay shooketh for 5 months, much less 5 years from then. Think back to something embarrassing you’ve seen a stranger done. Can you recall the face of the stranger? You can probably recall the details of the event, but the stranger’s face will most likely be left blank in your memory. You should take comfort that this also happens with other people. What’s the big deal if you tripped, slipped a half-eaten donut to the ground, picked it up and continued savoring it? The people who have seen it probably only remembered you as the disgusting donut dude, but not your face!

So there you go. Now, pick up that sponge, squeeze some gel and scrub, scrub, scrub away!

Vanity Wipe Part I: Why Wipe it out Though?

“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.

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Jane Austen, author. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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Vincent Van Gogh, aged 19. Photographed by Jacobus Marinus Wilhelmus de Louw.

“[…] 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!

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The Dog – 1862. Made when Vincent was nine years old. (Credit: WikiArt)

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.

  1. 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:

    51ewf4mndml-_sx403_bo1204203200_“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.”

  2. 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!