Friday, March 07, 2014

Nothing gold can stay

I didn't know who Kim Novak was when she rolled up on the Oscars stage last weekend; Hitchcock is generally too scary for my tastes. But I of course recognized the look -- the extensive plastic surgery, the cartoonish face. And as always, I judged her. Why do beautiful people get plastic surgery, I thought. They're already so beautiful; to age gracefully would be much more beautiful than what seems inevitable under the knife. Why must they be so vain? I would never get plastic surgery.

There was some history there for me. I'd never been a pretty child; I knew it. But people always told me I was smart. And I thought that that somehow was more important and more meaningful than physical beauty. It made me more special than the pretty people. Of course, that was my defense. I really wanted to be pretty.

But this week, as people alternately mocked and defended Kim Novak, I realized: We're actually a lot alike. That's not to say that I think I'm as smart as Kim Novak (or any other person who feels the need to get plastic surgery) was beautiful. It's to say that we all have gifts in the truest sense of the term: We did absolutely nothing to deserve them. Genetics handed us these things -- musical talent, athletic ability, intellectual ability, physical beauty. As much as we identify with these traits, it's just fortune. Sure, we choose whether we use and develop them (if we have those opportunities), but we have no say in any of it. And they diminish without our control; cells break down in our skin, in our muscles, in our brains. For years I've felt my mind diminishing. Words don't come as quickly as they used to, and when they do, they're just close to what I want. I work with words every day, and I'm losing the verbal precision I once enjoyed. 

But here's the big difference between me and the Kim Novaks of the world: My vanity has never been tested. There's no surgery that promises to take 10 years off my brain. If something like that existed, who knows what I would choose. What would I risk for the promise of more intelligence? My luck is that I won't have to carry that decision around on my face for the rest of my life.

It's funny to me how much we value the things we have no control over. Little of it has to do with character, and all of it fades. But there are things we can control; the kindness, the understanding, the forgiveness we offer -- the capacity for these things does not diminish as we grow older. If anything, they grow with us. I never valued these when I was younger. But I'm glad to see the error of my ways.

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