Substance and Appearance

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

My old philosophical mentor, Eric Mascall, used to say that, in our time, all the goods are in the store-window and there's very little under the counter. He was commenting on empiricism as a philosophy and how it was slowly robbing daily life of its mystery and depth. Sadly, that comment made years ago, rings true today at a different level.

Our world has become obsessed with appearance, with image, with persona, with what's in the store-window, with how we're perceived. Today it's more important to look good than to be good, more important to look healthy than to be healthy, and more important to have a good-looking surface than to have much in the way of integrity and depth underneath.

We see this everywhere, in our obsession for the perfect physical appearance, in the cult around image, in our mania for celebrity, in the imperialism of fashion, and in our not-so-disguised efforts to be perceived as connected to all the right things.

For example, typically, more and more Universities are handing out honorary degrees to two types of people, celebrities and highly recognized justice advocates. I'm not sure that many of those institutions actually care about the poor or intellectually endorse what the entertainment and sports industry (which produce most of our celebrities) are doing, but a Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Meryl Streep, Jodi Foster, Wayne Gretsky, or David Beckham looks mighty good on a University's public face: "Just look how caring, beautiful, and energetic we are!"

In the end, and I hope I'm not being cynical, it seems it's not so important what an institution believes in or how it treats its employees and students, it's only important how it's seen and perceived from the outside. Giving a doctorate to a Mother Theresa doesn't do much for the poor in India, but it does a fair amount for the institution who's honouring her.

The same is true in politics. Image has triumphed over substance. We tend to care less about policy than about appearance and we elect people to political offices more on the basis of their persona than anything else. To be elected to a public office today, it's more important to have the right image than to have political substance and the character.

But we shouldn't be too hard on the triumph of appearance over substance in public life because this simply mirrors what's happening in our private lives: More and more, appearance is the first thing, the whole thing, and the only thing. It's not important to be good, only to look good.

Cosmetics is becoming the biggest industry in the world and concern for how we look, for the perfect body, is now a crucifying anxiety that's leaving more and more of us, especially young people, dissatisfied with our own bodies and sadly restless within our own lives. The prevalence of anorexia, among other eating-disorders, more than bears this out. Too often we're dieting, not to be healthy, but to try to attain and maintain an impossible appearance. Everything is about how we look and so we exercise more, diet more strictly, and spend yet more money on fashionable clothing in an attempt to look right, even as we remain chronically disenchanted with how we look and know deep down that we're fighting a losing battle as our bodies age and society's standards grow ever more unattainable. Worse still, we tend now to make value judgements based on physical appearance alone. Our worth lies in looking good.

Not that all of this bad, mind you. Concern for physical appearance is a good thing in itself, as are concerns for exercise and diet. We are meant to look good and to feel good. Neither bodily health nor healthy aesthetics about our appearance should ever be denigrated in the name of morality, depth, or religion. Indeed lack of concern for one's physical appearance is a tell-tale sign of depression or even some deeper illness of soul. Our concern for appearance is a good thing, but, today, it's a good thing taken too far.

Concern for appearance should never replace a concern for substance, depth, and integrity of soul, just as, conversely, concern for substance and depth may never be an excuse for shoddiness and sloppy appearance. Still, today, we've lost the proper balance and it's hurting us in more ways than we imagine.

Faith is built on the blood of martyrs and the institutions that bind a society together (marriage, family, church, politics) are sustained largely on the basis of self-sacrifice. But ninety-nine percent of that martyrdom and self-sacrifice remains hidden, silent, anonymous, unnoticed, unglamorous, blood shed in secret, love given for reasons beyond appearance.

If this is true, and it is, then the prognosis for the future leaves me uneasy. When appearance is everything, we soon stop focusing on deeper things and then slowly, imperceptibly, appearance begin to look like character, celebrity begins to replace nobility of soul, and looking good becomes more important than being good.