There is something essentially comic about vanity. I ran into the phenomenon recently at the local fitness center where I have a membership. Everyone, I suspect, has seen the type: he lifts weights, often with a lot of noise, and he scorns machines like the treadmill or the elliptical trainer, much less — are you kidding? — Tai chi or group aerobics. Between sets, he stalks through the gym not looking at anyone else, though he clearly expects everyone else to be looking at him, the champion of his own workout.
Vanity always implies irony, because the emptiness of the self-estimate is clear to all but the one who holds it. On a minor scale, it’s fairly harmless and certainly comic. But as the vice broadens in scope and in subtlety of effect, it begins to lose its comic tone. I am not talking about concern with looks, which is the usual interpretation of the word, but about the kinds of self-importance that ascend through the ranks of wealth and power and fame, from individuals to nations, and increasingly take on major proportions of ironic futility.
This point was powerfully reinforced for me when, over the past two weeks, I reread Barbara Tuchman’s masterful history, The Guns of August. Tuchman’s account of the blindness and folly of Germany, France, England, and Russia in the first month of the World War I is stunning, and even more stunning is the murderous four-year war that followed. And we have forgotten so much. Before I read Tuchman’s book, I knew nothing about the destruction of Louvain by the Germans in August 1914, the atrocity that first alerted the world to the Kaiser’s intentions. Who but historians would remember it? In fact, who remembers the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70? Fr. James Schumacher, the pastor at Holy Rosary here in Lander, recently told me about an amusing image he had seen of the friendship between the Romans and the Jews: Roman soldiers carrying a menorah. It was amusing because whoever alighted upon that picture obviously did not recognize that it was taken from the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates Titus’s triumph, when he paraded the spoils of the Temple after his complete destruction of Jerusalem (the event foretold in Luke 21). What are all these great events once they pass out of memory?
As if on a Platonic Ladder of Vanity, we come to the judgments of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” A cripplingly discouraging thought, it would seem—and yet it is profoundly biblical. The passage continues: “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? . . . The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” On some deep level, we feel the full truth of this teaching, and we know that, for all our self-regard, for all the energy we expend, for all the importance we place on what we do, it all reverts to vanity. Our learning, our teaching, our brief lives in the context of history, our families across the generations — all are ultimately repetition and replacement and forgetfulness. Look back 150 years to our ancestors, and reflect that no one living can remember a single, living moment of their presence — not one moment out of a whole life with all its complexities — and then reflect what we shall be to our descendants 150 years from now.
Solomon’s wisdom cuts to the heart of our vanity. Even the traitorous American poet Ezra Pound could feel the force of it after his capture by Allied troops in Italy in World War II. Comparing the work of the artist to the natural world, he writes in Canto LXXXI (part of the so-called Pisan Cantos),
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity.
This Advent season does not center on our achievement; it is not the time of puffing ourselves up, but of waiting for God to reveal, as only God can, the new thing under the sun that breaks the great cycle of vanity. If we reflect how far from vanity Joseph had to be to accept his pregnant bride on the advice of a voice in a dream, or how little the conditions of His birth gave Mary reason for vanity in the arrival of the Christ, we ought, rightly, to be terrified. The angels terrify the shepherds “watching their flocks by night,” and healthy fear is a great solvent of vanity as we approach the birth of God among us. The greatest things are born from humility.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (December 2018).
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Editor’s note: The featured image above is a photograph entitled, “Weightlifting at the 2016 Summer Olympics — Men’s 94 kg (13),” by Mohammad Hassanzadeh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.