“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Eccl. 1:2b)
I’ve never considered myself to be a vain person: I don’t really care about current trends or fashion (as is evident of my typical daily wardrobe of jeans and a sweatshirt); I rarely fix my hair or put on makeup (except for special occasions); and I couldn’t care less about interior design (we have mostly hand-me-downs for home furnishings). But guess what? I am a vain person. It’s just that I didn’t realize my area of vanity until recently.
I was walking home from our local neighborhood park with our dog, focusing on the sidewalk with no particular thought streaming through my head. All at once, though, I noticed my shoes: worn and battered sneakers that I’d worn daily for the past year. And while looking at my shoes, I remembered the persistent, dull ache in my feet due to plantar fasciitis.
Shoes. At one time, I’d donned quite a collection of them: suede platform boots, sparkling stilettos, slip-ons, clogs, crocs, slippers, sporty heels — if they were different and funky, I owned them. Shoes were my “thing,” one could say. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t particularly beautiful (according to societal standards, of course). Most of my friends were thin and had thick, long, silky hair. They were sought after by all the boys, while my shy and quiet self remained a contented wallflower.
But I liked my feet. They were petite with tiny, perfectly shaped toenails that I kept polished all year round. To show them off, I bought and wore a plethora of shoes. Keeping my focus on my feet and the shoes that proudly displayed them was a welcome distraction from the reality that I didn’t have a pretty face or perfect figure.
Shortly after I gave birth to my first daughter, I developed a condition called plantar fasciitis, which causes painful inflammation in the tissue connecting the heel to the toes. At first, I ignored it and continued to wear my eclectic mélange of shoes. After a while, though, I had to see a podiatrist – who then prescribed expensive orthotic inserts that had to be worn daily.
My feet felt better, but the orthotics wouldn’t fit inside most of my shoes. Slowly, I got rid of some of my favorites, as they collected dust in my closet for months-turned-years. But I didn’t part with them all, in the vain (yes, vain) hope that one day I’d be able to wear them again.
Three children later, I have both lower back and foot problems that have caused so much trouble in my daily life that I wonder, in retrospect, if they are at least partially related to the uncomfortable but fashionable shoe choices I made in my teens and early twenties.
As I stared at my trusty sneakers that ordinary afternoon while walking my dog, I realized a hard truth: my feet had become a source of vanity for me. I wanted to somehow fit in with my peers, but I never found a way to do so until a friend had pointed out how pretty my feet were. So I put excessive time, effort, and pride into my feet and everything about them. Ironically, though, it wasn’t true care of my feet but rather the ostentatious exhibition of them.
The Catholic definition of vanity confuses a lot of us. We interchange it with the overarching vice of pride. While vanity is, of course, rooted in pride, it is considered a lesser (read: venial) sin. Secular sources claim that vanity is “excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements” or “worthless, futile, empty, or valueless.” As Catholics, we also attribute vanity to “deceitfulness,” “a sham,” or “the idle effort to obtain recognition or respect for what a person does not have a rightful claim to.”
While the world lauds ad nauseum consumerism and everything that restores physical health (such as gym memberships, organic foods, probiotics and vitamins, etc.), we know that the soul is the source of eternal vitality. Certainly, as temples of the Holy Spirit, we must take care of our bodies. But it seems that self-care has taken on an entirely different meaning in our modern world.
I’ve met plenty of people who feel ashamed because they are not thin, have laugh lines, feel plagued with arthritis, diabetes, or depression. And they believe (erroneously) that they are unworthy or ugly, that there is something inherently “wrong” or disordered about them and their bodies. In conversing with others, I realize that I, too, have believed this about myself — which is why I obsessed over my feet and shoes for years. It was a source of vanity, because it detracted from musing over my value as a person made in the image of the eternal God.
Sometimes our physical conditions are a reflection of poor lifestyle choices we’ve made, but sometimes they aren’t. And we can’t continue to blame ourselves over the shape of our bodies or noses or texture of our skin or hair.
When we begin to shift our emphasis on external fixations to the condition of our souls, we are better able to see ourselves honestly and thus pluck out those root sins, those patterns that keep us oppressed and spiritually sick. Since we are holistic creatures, our spiritual diseases manifest themselves outwardly, too. When we work on one problem area, such as vanity, we will discover that our worldview and perspective changes. And then we may make those lifestyle changes we know we need.
It seems the author of Ecclesiastes knew that vanity was akin to being spiritually bereft. There’s something deeper we’re trying to conceal when we ruminate over a particular perceived character flaw. Maybe this is something we attempt to correct through plastic surgery, expensive clothing, hair dye, teeth whitening, or, as in my case, shoes. There are too many examples of where vanity may have gotten its clutch on us, perhaps in ways too subtle for us to recognize and tackle.
What are we concealing? Usually it is an interior wound, probably rooted in shame, guilt, or a dark secret or sin we cannot seem to overcome. Our lives are broken and battered, to be sure, and we look for visible and obvious ways we can make ourselves feel better. But our emptiness or loneliness is not assuaged by the externals we pursue. And we all know that.
This year, let’s hone in those little sins that collectively comprise our daily burdens. Perhaps vanity is among them for you, as it is for me. Perhaps you already know what God wants to liberate within you. Look for patterns — destructive, unhealthy, lazy, cumbersome — and then pray about what the source of your sin is. Then we can chime in the refrain of Ecclesiastes and know that “there is nothing new under the sun,” that is, that every sin is recycled garbage from ages past. Truly, it is simply the vanity of vanities; all is vanity.