Sin in the eye of the beholder

Posted on December 29, 2007
Filed Under Theological | 5 Comments

I wore a red shirt with a starched collar to the family Christmas party.

From my upbringing I got the disposition to regard nice clothes as the first step of fivolity toward decadence. I am not sure how much of that was deliberate principle versus circumstance and personal preference, but my mental point of reference is the conception of unstained, unwrinkeled, unfaded clothing as superficial and heathen.

I wore the red shirt to the Christmas party because I get a kick out of wearing bold, dramatic clothes now and then. Any kind of clothing, worn constantly, registers as Just Clothes, but if I usually go around in jeans it feels somewhat like having desert to wear fancy clothes.

The dynamic between attire as just a pleasure of life and as heraldry of worldliness leaves me wondering about some other aspects of personal appearance. My dad is very negative about jewelry or makeup on women. When I first got to the point where I even thought about such things, I took it in stride as a cogent and necessary part of rejecting vain and sensual attitudes. The same unexamined continuum included not using deodorant and not shaving (faces, legs, armpits, whatever). As I got older, and got out around people who questioned my whiskery face, I realized that adherering to normal standards of personal grooming could have practical social effects. Just as your choice of language communicates your personality in obvious and subtle ways, so your choice of clothing is also a constant broadcast about yourself.

I can’t recall any significant questions about my clothes, but there are a few times I can recall where people asked me about my facial hair and I found I didn’t know exactly why I let it grow–other than it does happen to be the natural default state of affairs. In my home environment I never had cause to think about it, so when I started telling someone that I respected the way God naturally made me and they replied that he also made the hair on my head and my fingernails grow too, and I cut those. That is not any kind of air-tight argument; for one thing, I trim my nails because when they get long I peel them and that can get uncomfortable, and the hair on my head would never stop growing; for a while, I treated my beard like my arm hair. It didn’t get too long to be dealt with so I let it be.

But as far as bringing up principles to be questioned, they had a point. In some cultures long hair on a man is not the least out of the ordinary. If I say God uses beards in part of his chosen distinction between sexes, someone can point to males who are naturally hairless on their faces. I always think of American Indians, although I am not completely sure how many of them really were smooth faced and how often they are just portrayed that way. I can give all kinds of opinions on what I think looks appropriately masculine, but I can think of very little within the New Testament that constrains male grooming, and what is written about women is hotly contended and not completely clear to me.

It seems to me abundantly evident from the principles of Christ’s teaching that no material fact of personal attire is all by itself sin. To be seen naked, even, is not of itself sinful on the person beheld. It almost always is, because we are meant to be ashamed of our nakedness, to give us a physical and lifelong reminder of our debased state in sin–not, as some suppose, that reproduction is sinful. But God has chosen to appoint modesty to those parts of us, and reserve them as specially personal aspects of our bodies. Since this modesty is an image and witness of immaterial truth, and not the thing itself, exposure is not itself sin. Whether at the hands of evil men, or in natural need such as childbirth or other medical issue, in certain times and places nakedness does not have its usual connotation of shameless exposure, of willful rebellion to the intent of God’s creation.

Likewise, hair, whether purple or shaved or extra long, has of itself no sanctifying or corrupting property. I have trouble imagining a case of purple hair that is not at heart a rejection of God’s work, but neither can I blithely conclude that people with purple hair are consigned to hell. Even among those actively following after Him God allows some rebellions to go unchallenged–else every one of us would be in constant torment of His judgment, none of us yet being free from sin and waywardness.

From there I wonder how much of personal grooming should be deliberately conformed to cultural norms. It seems to me that if Paul had Timothy remove an irreplaceable piece of his flesh so as to cause no offense visiting the Jewish synagogues, it is a small thing for me to cut off my hair to avoid offending whatever people I might be among. That gets into the whole gray area of offenses, from what someone might considered tastless or ill-bred to the kind of sacrilege that it was to enter Jewish holy places uncircumcised.

I have opinions on this or that aspect of personal grooming, but derived from the above principles and not set in stone. My views are yet to the point where I feel any urgency in proclaiming or defending them. I have learned to be wary of resolving moral academic quandaries just for the sake of intellectual equilibrium; a problem that has not come to me is not necessarily a problem I am meant to solve.

If it is not necessary for me to propound on the proper treatment of male facial hair, it must seem even more spurious to mention anything about female attire. Yet such is the impetus for this post. While I have no qualms about my current mode of attire, it effects only me and can be changed by me on a whim. I get a little more conflicted when I feel I might be actually affecting other parties. When I went on a couple of business trips I felt I was representing my place of work and so got fussier and more concerned with my appearance. Then it occurred to me that I would not have even been asked to go on the trips if my general appearance was considered too outrageous. Then I realized that it was hypothetically possible I had missed some other kinds of opportunties for precisely that reason–which is a hypothetical always pointed out by harpies of class grooming. But again, the only party significantly involved in the trade off has been myself.

I am not presently in a situation where my opinions on attire make a difference to any female on earth. However I once accidentally influenced a young woman to stop wearing earrings. I had expressed my view at some point but I had not intentionally lobbied for any action, nor did I consider it my place to register any such kind of request.

Since that incident I have noticed that one’s opinions can have a much greater influence on women than intended, especially with regard to appearances. I remember remarking on a coworker’s new glasses (or was it new hair style? I can’t remember), and I said quite simply, “New glasses, I see.” The two girls in the office, the subject herself and another, happened to be so frank as to say, after my subsequent lapse to silence, “You can’t just say that or she’ll think you hate them and they make her look ugly, you have to say you like them too!” I deduce this was not about me in particular, since (1) the girl–or should I say, woman–was recently married, and (2) she participated in the lecture. If my opinion in the matter was especially important I don’t think either of the two would have been true. I’ve noticed, though, how widely this is practiced, so that women are always complementing each other on new looks, even if it is a matter of indifference to the commentator, or even distasteful, and even if the subject in question professes no love of the new look–and this is not done as an expedient lie, as I supposed in my male mind, but just to avoid crushing the sensitive self image of the woman with the new look. Where it looks to me like proactive dishonesty, it is undertaken by them as preventive caring.

Still not sure what I think of that. The best, most admirable women I know do not change their looks every few months, nor do they invest so much self-worth in the acceptance of such a change; and the social trivialty is such a near cousin of the little white-lie (who metamorphs so quickly to the Large Deception For Your Own Good) that I regard it suspiciously.

Leaving aside the ritual compliments and taking just the sensitivity about appearances that is common in the female psyche, I regard it as unnecessary for any woman to use makeup or jewelery to attain all-purpose good looks. Perhaps if someone had a certifiable deformity–that legendary “bearded woman” or some prounounced pockmark or whatnot–there could be a case made for remedial cosmetics, but your ordinarily lipstick and mascara I regard as nonessential. Unlike clothes, which everyone knows cover your natural body, makeup is at some level meant to appear to be the natural features. A shirt is not meant to be conflated with the actual torso–or then again, maybe it is, in a lot of contemporary female attire, but that is only to my real point–while the observer is not meant to distinguish between the lips and the lipstick. Woman was not created as a creature fundamentally lacking asthetically, and needing makeup.

Modern secularists who see woman as created by culture and not by God would disagree with me here. Most feminists, of course, would agree that women should not be obliged to wear makeup, but that’s opening a whole different topic. The average American female seems to believe that female beauty is a purchased commodity rather than a created attribute.

But when we have left behind the secular world, and supposedly moved to a God-centered way of thinking, it would seem obvious to me that we regard all purchasable aspects of female beauty to be accessory. Especially given the characteristic sensitivity about apperances that I already noted, I find it apalling and disgraceful that anyone with half a claim serious Christianity could say that “It’s not a sin for a woman to wear makeup–in fact it’s a sin for some women to go without it!” This is supposed to be a joke, so feel free to say Ha Ha at this time. I have laughed at many jokes that in all seriousness should not be considered funny, and I may have laughed the first time I heard this one. When I hear it in the context of anything that is supposed to remotely resemble a serious discussion about attire, it makes my stomach churn.

This kind of attitude is presented by people who will in the same conversation tell you how crucial it is that a husband tend to his wife’s emotions as well as her physical needs. Husbands need emotional care from their wives, as well, but husands usually don’t understand that a woman’s appearance is a matter of routine emotional maintenance. “You look good,” in those words or by implication, is for most women a matter of appreciation as routine as “good job” is for a man–or even “thank you.” Again, not always said explicitly, but somehow conveyed. This need is well communicated in commonplace Christian conseling these days. But thrown right in there with it is the completly contravailing, annulling, undermining credo that a wife ought to put on a bit of makeup and something nice before she expects her husband to appreciate her looks.

I have heard both men and women promulagate this idea, but the men especially must have no idea what kind of condemnation they place themselves under with this message. Bad enough what they do directly to the self-image of women, who will always sometimes have bad days and look frumpy–and so much the more if they are raising children, as I believe fully intended by God. But if you understand that we all are the Bride of Christ, and we say that our human brides are not worthy of affection without a little remedial work, than we have in a way unworthy of Christ’s love as we truly are, and only acceptable behind a veneer of beauty that cannot do anything at all to please the eyes of God.

Maybe we do try to apply the same principle to our lives. Maybe the good works we are exhorted to are supposed to be the remedial makeup, the which does not by itself make us loved by God, but makes it possible for Him to love us a whole lot more affectionately. Even if the ethos is equally applied it is still perverse and repugnant.

In another place where I worked, not the same as in the first incident, there was a young woman about my age who often came in without any makeup on, and frequently applied it during the day. Gradually I noticed than when she was in her natural appearance she looked more tired, depressed, and stressed than she looked once her makeup was on, and I realized that this is why women wear makeup. Then I further noticed that when she looked tired, depressed, and stressed out I was more concerned for her well being and would ask how she was doing and generally think of her as a person with problems as I myself had problems, but when she was all made up and somehow had more of a happy, contented, or clam look, that I tended to assume that she actually was happy even if her life circumstances did not change that much from day to day.

Then I realized, this is why men like makeup. There’s a whole range of makeup effects, some more sexually evocative than others, but in all cases the tendency of makeup is to reduce the naunced expression of a human face into a few accentuated facial signals that communicate some manner of pleasant thoughts to the obsever. Men’s appreciation for makeup is not strictly as a hypersexualizing device, but also as a simplifying device, to bury the concerns and feelings of women behind a filter that only lets Happy through.

Some time not too long before I moved away from home I began to notice that my Mom looked more worn out than other women her age. Many people today would say “Of course she looks a bit tired, since she was cruelly used to produce twelve kids, like some kind of farm animal.” But what bothered me about her appearance was not her appearance itself, it was actually the very fact that it could be construed as proof that she had lived and undesirable and disadvantagous life, when it seems to me her years of work as a mother are hugely admirable, and that somehow one should be able to tell just by looking at her that it would be good to live life much the way she has done.

I sometimes cringe when I hear women, real or fictionalized, speaking of the horrors of old age that they try to avoid, or that they imagine have befallen them, when sometimes those “horrors” seem to describe my mother aptly. But why are they afraid of these signs of aging? My mother has a husband who loves her deeply, and not in some loyal dog sense of deep love, but in every way and in every degree that a wife should be loved. And it is not that I love her any less myself, either.

There is something sad about age, yes. In my old room I had a picture of the family clan from twenty years ago, and I liked it for its melancholy because nobody looked that young any more. I know I am young but I don’t fancy myself as gloriously young; I consider it a prologue to age. There for a while it seemed particularly acute to me that everybody in the world was rushing headlong into old age, and worn-down, broken-down decripitude, along with everything else in the universe. Then I noticed that if I looked closely even women in their early twenties seemed to be past the blossom of their beauty, the majority of women seeming to reach the peak of their unblemished pristine features in mid to late teens.

Most women can and do extend the appearance of flawless features many years beyond their teens, but once you realize it is by artificial means a whole new paradigm opens up. The commonplace approach is to look for artificial means to extend that kind of beauty further and further, but the genuine truth-appreciating approach is to stop striving for an appearance that shows no sign of age, of use, of experience. Age and dying are facts of this life, and trying to hide them behind makeup is in a way the same sort of sin as nudity. You are not supposed to parade around in the raw and you are not supposed to look young forever.

I would be dishonest to say women shouldn’t wear makeup because it won’t effect how I think of them. People would not talk if they were not typically understood and women would not wear makeup if it did not typically influence how people react to them. I have observed myself reacting in a more immediately friendly way toward women with cultured apperances. But I have also observed it is because I see less of a person there. Being friends with real people is a lot of work. They carry all this baggage from their life experiences, and you never know at first if some of those experiences have made them unfriendly toward people with your personality. But the painted faces are always friendly and happy and glad to see you, and it always puzzles me when they say grumpy things.

Now that I have worked out that I have little esteem for the use of makeup, it brings me full circle to where I started. How much of the same kind of deliberate misrepresentation is involved in wearing fancy clothes? I do believe some women wear makeup because they like the way it looks on them, no more than I like a red shirt or new black shoes or eating brownies. Even more so with jewelery, because that is not an exageration of a physical feature but an obviously removable. Sometimes I think all jewelry is meant to call attention to the body itself, like certain styles of clothes, and sometimes I think that most jewelery, like most clothes, is intended to have an aesthetic appeal but is not meant to flaunt.

There are some Christians who think that women can eradicate sensuality by wearing “modest” clothes, usually simple dresses that in my taste are among the most flattering clothes women can wear. Certainly they are more attractive than some of the clothes other women wear that make them appear like barely contained blobs of flesh, like sausage–and I don’t even mean fat women in clothes that are too tight.

Nobody in my family ever did think that you could limit what men thought in their heads by controlling what women wore on their bodies. Likewise I don’t think we should let women wear whatever they want and shoot all the men; put another way, there certainly is such a thing as deliberately and wrongly provocative clothing. But where in between do the lines fall? I don’t really know.

You’re not supposed to write essays on subjects you aren’t convinced of, because it causes such lousy endings.

Polyphonic Light Brigade

Posted on December 17, 2007
Filed Under Mundane | Comments Off on Polyphonic Light Brigade

I use my cell phone for my morning alarm. It plays, with all the grandeur it can muster, “Leichte Kavallerie Overture.” To me it conjures the most famous Charge of the Light Brigade. Thus it is likely to remain my alarm for some time to come.

The levels of irony, you see, make this an unassailable choice. For the tune first calls the slumberer to awake with all the greatest sentiments of duty, and it dismisses at once any question of whether it is really worth getting out of bed; “theirs,” of course, “not to question why.” But as soon as you begin to say, “Good grief, nothing I might remotely be about today deserves such a grandoise introduction,” well, then there’s the fact that this mighty theme is being piped out by a tweedling cell phone.

Charge, men! Such as ye be,
To immortal fame, or polyphony.

Here I am, once again

Posted on December 16, 2007
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How odd that we most need help when we are least capable of asking for it. I am grateful the bad weather did not blow in yesterday, for I felt that I had to get home. I needed the emotional stabilization that comes from family.

I don’t know why. Nothing has happened recently that is in the least out of the ordinary. My circumstances are lonley, but not exceptionally so this week. My work can leave me feeling unappreciated, but this last week has been to my liking. Yet I felt like one paused on the threshold Desperation, looking back onto gray empty streets for some glimpse of Reason or Virtue, about to plunge into Abandon, whereby successive permissions purchase regret. My only enemy was myself, and I did not know where my adversary stood.

I was too cowardly to mention any of this. The exorcists of the clan are efficient; to a convolution of sophistications, factors, variables, nuances, and interpretations, they are Alexandrian. Those who fear the sword will hide their knotty problems. I had no Great Temptation, no momentous Issue; to expose my trivial wrestlings to such harsh light might give the impression I committed more grevious sin than was the case.

I had a friend for a time who did not need to be invited to unmask my anxieties. My friend would deftly find the weak spot in my edifice and work at it until the whole facade of adaptation crumbled away and I was left staring at my own naked resentment or fear. But I built this friend into a most beautiful relief, so in the last crumbling the friendship too was destroyed.

Since that time I have found another friend, whom I like to regard as a charicature of myself: fantastically vain, petty, conceited, lacking in self control. Also as vulnerable as a chick freshly tumbled from the shell, still wet. In point of fact, bipolar.

Such a liar as this man is, I regard the story of his life as partly a fable. To me he resorts almost exclusively to omissions and sometimes exaggerations. When I met him I could see through his fabrications as I might read my own diary. I have seem him less and less, by divurging circumstances, but when I last saw him he was so manic that I thought it completely faked, and kept expecting for the true depression to emerge from billowing clouds of dust as his Imperial constructions of Parisian plaster collapse. I heard how, in the interim since the last time I had spoken with him, he had made another attempt at suicide; and, after recovering, how he completed his undergraduate program at an intense accelerated pace.

And so for all I know he could be dead now. I don’t know what the power is of the illness that holds him, but I know that nervous, shiftless excitement, the need for distraction or sedation, while it may continue for a fantastic period of months or even perhaps years, can never last.

It may be you can measure my selfishness by how little I worry for this friend. It is true that he rarely responds to written words and not much more to telephone contact, but it is also true that I very seldom even attempt. This man is on a certain path of destruction, and I can no more save him than he can save himself. When I am with him I try to pare down to true questions, for in moral matters true answers are always apparent in well-put questions; there is never a lack of knowledge, only an unwillingness to entertain the right question. But as magnets may be forced pole to pole, though they repel, they will not connect in any meaningful way until the pressure is released and they spin to in an inversion, so my best attempts to match evil with its genesis and hope with its revelation have never accomplished more than a momentary and artificial congruity, quickly twisted according to natural inclination to a mispurpose of my effort.

For all the futility of my efforts, one does not neglect to hold a hand out to a drowning man simply because he cannot reach that far, or he may choose not to reach. Among all those I meet–let us say those at work, since I meet them most–I assiduously avoid preaching any kind of judgement unless I think there will be repentance, just a trice shy of never. I have avoided the sin of Jonah, perhaps, but not attained to the service of Isaiah, either.

I at one time considered it a deficiency of my family that they did not reach in without invitation to diagnose my malaise, and send me on my way probed, prodded, examined, and prescribed, by impulse of familial concern for my spiritual and emotional health. But I have always been a moper, since before I would have thought to assign any spiritual aspect to my maladies, and I am always perplexed when I see someone demonstrate an understanding and compassion for the concerns of another without there being any pathos or resonant circumstances between the two to generate the kind of sympathy that beats in my heart.

It is true that love may prompt this gift to be given unasked, and always undeserved. It is also self-love that could imagine that it should be given unasked, unearned.

May Father forgive me for not asking.

From exposure to curtains

Posted on December 12, 2007
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“I like looking outside. Even when it’s night, I like to see the dark,” said my brother.

I know what he means. Of course it is grand to look out at a sunny day, but even when it is raining, when it is gloomy or pitch dark, there is a reassurance and a healthy reminder to looking outside. The weather is always doing as it pleases, rarely what you might wish, and the very air betrays a sort of sentience to those who have worked out in it by necessity. It is not a personable sort of sentience, but like a cat: its paths and ways might be affected by all the to-do of human activity, all our constructions and pavings and disorderly arrangings, yet it goes about its business aloof from these things, following invisible paths that lie over all our bother like bubbles on water. If you are getting caught up in the anxieties of your day, a clear window will watch you unblinking, unperturbed. I don’t care, it might say to all your anxieties, but it doesn’t care enough to say so.

This is good medicine. But the nonchalance so afforded by a window is despoiled if unkindred faces pass too close by. There are tall windows in this apartment with elaborate old trim, and I love these windows. The three in the front room, the two flanking windows in angled wall to from a kind of curve, were part of what made me want this apartment over the others I looked at, price notwithstanding. All the windows came with blinds. Whenever I have hauled up the blinds to appreciate the noncomittal possibility of a window view, someone has gone past too close for me to ignore, jerking my attention to the window and causing me to focus on the venue meant for unfocused happenstance.

Even with the blinds down, when I sat by the windows in the front people would go by on the porch, and the little gaps at the sides of the blinds would feel like slits in a shower curtain; it gave the feeling that either I was peeking out or the passers by were peeking in.

I have been leaving the blinds mostly closed, and not sitting too close to windows people might pass by. After a month of having the furnace on, I grew vexed by the furnace’s seeming to run every ten minutes. With an hour lunch, I am gone for 9 hours at least five days a week; often eleven hours, sometimes more. On the weekends I am here even less, since I almost always spend them with family. It’s one thing to spend money heating a house full of people, and another to spend money heating an empty apartment. One obvious loss of heat was the windows; tall, and with handsome trim, but old and leaky too.

I began to entertain the thought of curtains. I always thought it was stupid to have windows if you were going to cover them up, and denied I would ever get curtains. But seeing how I spent so little time in the apartment awake, and of that scant time most of it in the dark when windows show what is in more than what is out, it began to make sense to cover the windows. Still I wasn’t convinced that curtains would help substantially with heat control, and I had not decided to get them. But then I was just waiting in Wal-Mart, and there were the curtains, waiting for me.

The front room is mainly a cream or almond color. The upper half of the wall has a restrainted plant print on it, and there’s a leafy border paper around the middle. The green curves in these two prints complement each other nicely, and the floral pattern in the green curtains I got for the front room went along splendidly. I was enchanted when I put them up. I kept going back into the room to look at them and chuckle. Yes, it seemed odd even to me at the time, to chuckle over the curtains, but at the same time I found that if I moved the coffee table from dead center to a side window, and put my chair beside it, the room became much more inviting. With the curtains protecting me from accidental glances, I had got back my front room sanctuary.

Curtains are one of the things supposed to add a feminine touch to a house. I will be more particular: my curtains have a maternal effect to me. They shelter, protect, and comfort, and they are graceful. They have a quiet abiding kind of beauty, if beauty is not too strong a word for an aesthetic satisfaction rather than titillation.

I think this is partly why I so stridently rejected my grandmother’s suggestions about curtains before. Her curtains are pretty lacey things, flouncy attention-seeking ornaments. If my curtains strike me as dresses for windows, than Grandma’s favorite curtains seem to me unbecoming dresses.

Someday I’d like to sit in that front room with the curtains pulled back and the blinds pulled up as dawn floods the valley. They are east-facing windows and the dawn comes in like glory, but usually I am on my way out the door to work or I am still asleep in my room, recuperating from late nights in front of the computer. But in my imaginary life I sit there every cold morning, lost in thought as gray bekons pink into fresh day. On the warm days I would be outside hours before the sun rises, out in wide spaces of growing things clad in dew, as songbirds narrate a week’s worth of news to one another, and I would be out there long through the day, till past dark when the stars appear deep and wide across the sky.

In my real life now I spend my long hours in wide spaces lit with electric lights, and the constant sounds are of machines. There is a kind of dew, a gray, greasy film that builds up gradually on all surfaces. But I can still come home at night, with my one light in the front room shining a warm yellow over the black walnut coffee table and layering shadows into the folds of the curtains, as I sit in my comfortable chair.

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