And All is Vanity

In Western art, vanity was often symbolized by a peacock,

In Western art, vanity was often symbolized by a peacock,

There is this girl in my meetings who often says God will keep repeating the lesson until the lesson is learned.  We nod in agreement because nobody has been better at not learning our lessons than we alcoholics.  And sometimes we’re described as “insane” by doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.

It’s a myth that alcoholics have no willpower. We have more willpower than the average guy–we just misdirect our will, trying to do things our way no matter what the consequences. It is a very strong will that refuses to accept things the way things are.  Do we not see the consequences or do we just insist stubbornly on our own way by ignoring God’s reality?

How wonderful life could be if only everything went our way!

What ever it is, it’s me.  God is once again trying to teach me a lesson He’s tried to teach me for years: to tame my vanity.  The only way for God to break me of my vanity is to allow me to be humiliated and embarrassed over and over again until finally on my knees I remember to turn back to Him.  Like a little child, I am reprimanded by the lesson; but then repeat it as if I’m convinced the teacher is wrong.  (Convinced I am God?)

It wasn’t until a few years ago I even realized vanity was my problem.  Like people have preconceived ideas of what an “alcoholic” is, I had a preconceived idea of what vanity was.  A vain person always looked in the mirror right?  Well, that wasn’t me.  A vain person thought they were beautiful, right?  That certainly wasn’t me.  A vain person thought the world revolved around them, right?  I didn’t think that was me. But was it?

Then my sister got a spiritual director who instructed her to pick a vice to work on, just one.  And to fix that vice in herself, she was instructed to practice the opposite virtue for a month.

I wanted to try this, but I didn’t know which vice to pick.  I read all the definitions of the various vices — and I was quite proud of myself for not being infected with pride. I kept returning to vanity.  The definition was foreign to me–in this day and age, the definition of vanity has been distorted so much so we don’t recognize it in ourselves. Stupid Screwtape does it again.

The necessity of countering the vices with virtues has always been recognized by Christians. Saint Francis of Assisi describes the power of the virtues in destroying vices in his poetic discourse on The Praises of the Virtues (Salutatio Virtutum).

O most holy Virtues, may the Lord protect all of you, from Whom you come and proceed. There is surely no one in the entire world who can possess any one of you unless he dies first. Whoever possesses one (of you) and does not offend the others, possesses all. And whoever offends one (of you) does not possess any and offends all.  And each one destroys vices and sins. Holy Wisdom destroys Satan and all his subtlety. …Holy Charity destroys every temptation of the devil and of the flesh and every carnal fear.

Vanity refers to egoism, in which one rejects God for the sake of one’s own image, and thereby becomes divorced from the graces of God. My simplistic definition is that I care more about what people think of me than what God thinks of me.

Hieronymus Bosch's The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Vanity is the fear of appearing original: it is thus a lack of pride, but not necessarily a lack of originality.”  And one of Mason Cooley’s aphorisms is “Vanity well fed is benevolent. Vanity hungry is spiteful.”

I was happy in a sense to discover vanity was not one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Phew!  But then I learned in Christian teachings vanity is considered an example of pride, which is indeed one of the worst of the seven deadlies. This list of seven evolved from an earlier list of eight sins, which included vainglory as a sin independent of pride.  Yikes!

All is Vanity, by Charles Allan Gilbert (1873–1929), carries on this theme. An optical illusion, the painting depicts what appears to be a large grinning skull. Upon closer examination, it reveals itself to be a young woman gazing at her reflection in the mirror. In the film The Devil’s Advocate, Satan (Al Pacino) claims, “Vanity is my favorite sin”.

So, here we are on our annual trip to Florida. This year we decided to go to Tampa to visit one of Rob’s biological relatives and also check up with his best friend who just got out of rehab.  Then we drove to Orlando; and we have tickets today to attend the UGA vs NE bowl game.  Go Dawgs!

In Tampa, we stayed with his biological relatives–who happen to live in a beautiful house on the Bay and are quite wealthy and connected politically.  I have become friends with these people over Facebook and I could tell they liked me. I always like people who like me :)  So, I wanted to impress them a little bit, show what a happy little family we were and how worthy we were of operating in the same circles.  YUCK!  Just writing this truth disgusts my better brain.  They are such a nice and happy family and I wanted them to think we were too.  Are we?  Yes, but I suppose in my twisted mind we weren’t as nice and happy as they were? So, I felt the need to pretend.

Ugh. Vanity is grose.

Stupid :0 Husband decides to tell them that I’m in AA.  WTF?  They were offering us drinks and I declined; but he felt he needed to explain, so he tells them he “doesn’t drink around his wife to support her.”  The conversation went on and the questions came and he was completely open and honest about me being an alcoholic!  I about died.  In fact, I sunk into a 12 hour mini depression over this! I still pretended around them but despaired in grossness behind closed doors.

What is going on in my brain? I’m having all kinds of irrational thoughts: I’m a loser. I assume I know what they’re thinking. Everybody thinks alcoholics are bums; and an alcoholic mother is the bottom of the bottom, right?  I assume they’re just being polite now that they know the real me.  I assume they wish we would hurry up and leave.  They are probably worried I might steal something.  That’s what alcoholics do, right?  on and on…  my brain is absolutely convinced of my complete unworthiness. I was so embarrassed.

Composition of flowers, less obvious style of Vanitas by Abraham Mignon in the National Museum in Warsaw. Barely visible amid vivid and perilous nature (snakes, poisonous mushrooms) a sole bird skeleton is a symbol of vanity and shortness of life.

Composition of flowers, less obvious style of Vanitas by Abraham Mignon in the National Museum in Warsaw. Barely visible amid vivid and perilous nature (snakes, poisonous mushrooms) a sole bird skeleton is a symbol of vanity and shortness of life.

No where do I remember Jesus.  No where do I turn my focus to God.  As long as my focus remains on comparing myself to other people, I am doomed.

Because the truth is not only am I not unworthy, but Jesus died for me.  Not only am I not a heathen outcast but God made me wonderfully and beautifully in His image!  So, who am I to think so often so little of myself? This bottom of the barrel thinking becomes my turning point, my spring-board into new life.  Now, I am able to turn back to God, if only to ask Him this question–why did you make me to be such a loser?

Turning to God with this question is the only beginning I need. My thoughts begin to turn around.  My focus slowly moves back to where it should be: on my husband and children and on God.  Pray to do God’s will and be of service to Him today.  My depression lifts and irrational thoughts become rational again.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change–what other people think of me!  Not only do I have no clue what these people are thinking of me, it is entirely none of my business.  All that matters is what God thinks of me.  All that matters is that I impress God, not men.  And how do I impress God? By my authenticity.

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4 thoughts on “And All is Vanity

  1. What I’ve learned from a dear friend who is alcoholic is that God works good out of everything and in your weakness is His strength. St. Therese says that everything is grace. I can see in my friend, and in you, how this is true. Thank you for your honesty. Happy New Year.

  2. Pingback: My Dad and Me « Sober Identity

  3. Pingback: Question of the Day for Sunday: Vanity

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