Having grown up on the sun drenched beaches of Eastern Australia, completely oblivious to the dangers of skin cancer, I appreciate a good tan. But I also know how fleeting a tan is, how elusive the perfect tan is, and how your skin can only tan so much before it wrinkles like a piece of old leather.
Truth is, I suspect the orange girl on the billboard tans because she’s bought into a culture where self esteem is based on popularity, which is based on how attractive you are, which is built around a very narrow and superficial beauty myth. We tan for the same reason we self medicate and self mutilate; self loathing. We tan because we DON’T feel good all year round. Because life feels so out of control, we tan to give ourselves the illusion of control. After all, it’s a powerful feeling to change the color of your skin, and turn heads.
I see a lot of orange girls these days, and I can relate. I don’t go to the gym for the pure goodness of being healthy. My ego gets a solid work out too. A definite part of my identity is based on the superficial male beauty myth and now that I’m in my 40s, and life is busy, this illusion is getting harder to sustain too.
We ALL do it in our own ways. There’s no need for self judgment. That’s the problem in the first place. There IS a need for self examination, a little more mindfulness about motivation.
The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Note that he didn’t say “It’s better to examine your life” or “when you get a minute, do a little examination.” He said it’s not even worth living if you don’t examine your life. It’s a strong statement. And the type of examination he’s talking about is brutally honest. The word “examine” has military origins. It speaks of discipline and rigor.
There are so many personal and social issues that could do with some examination. An examined life is personal mindfulness and social awareness.
I read that in North Carolina it’s now a felony to expose a nipple in public. The feeling that a woman’s body is shameful is part of the same beauty myth. Women are expected to find the impossible balance between satisfying male fantasies while not stimulating male fantasies. This is happening in a state where one in four kids live in poverty. I think some law makers in North Carolina might want to examine their priorities.
We should examine ALL the systems, as well as our own roles in perpetuating them.
The incredible and shocking reality is that we have brains that are capable of solving intricate problems like poverty. We have the power of choice but rarely choose to use it for good. We have the collective capacity and resources to solve all the great problems in the world but barely make any headway.
We need the courage and character of people like Socrates to truly examine the world and our place in it. Socrates made his famous statement about the unexamined life at his own heresy trial, as told by his famous student Plato. He was charged with subverting the state and corrupting young people because of his open ended, questioning methods. His practice was to walk up to random people in the street and ask them what they believed and why, a la Michael Moore.
Socrates was given the choice of his own punishment. He could either drink the hemlock and suffer an agonizing death or face exile. He drank the hemlock after making his declaration that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The guy had skin in the game. He knew the costs of an examined life. He wasn’t the only activist in history to drink the hemlock. There are many fine examples of people who suffered for their honesty.
The promise of an examined life is not happiness but honesty. Kurt Vonnegut said,
Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?
Exactly! The examined life might turn out to be a clunker because it offers no guarantees of security. It offers only the satisfaction of integrity. Integrity won’t give you a safe life, but the alternative is a cancer more fierce than skin cancer. It’s the cancer of deceit. It eats away at your soul. The integrity of an examined life is unsettling but SO satisfying and purposeful. Try it on for size.