Here’s something I just realized: Vanity and self-loathing are two sides of the same coin.
That sounds odd, because vanity is an excessive interest or concern with your own assets—an inordinate attention to your looks, talents, etc. And self-loathing means you can’t admit to yourself that you have any assets. Hard to imagine a vain person hating himself—and hard to imagine someone who hates himself ever succumbing to vanity. But I think it’s actually extremely common for these two to go together. This relationship is something I think of as “the Matrix/Disney Heresy.”
I liked the 1999 move The Matrix when it first came out—it was original and entertaining. But now I see its premise—that you can either take one pill and live a life of happy delusion, or take another which will reveal reality in all its grim horror—as a symptom of a modern disease: the idea that the truthiest truth that we can find is always, always, always something bad.
The Matrix mentality says that when we see the worst of something, then we’re seeing what’s at its heart. Right? When someone ordinary does something awful, we think, “Aha, now I know what he’s really like!” (And we see an ordinary person doing something magnificent, we say, “I didn’t know he had it in him!” as if a good deed is some kind of errant parasite that happened to land in this unwitting host.)
The self-loathing person says the same thing about himself: Any virtues I have seem like a transient fluke or like fakery, whereas the flaws—ah, those are definitive.
The “Disney” side of the heresy is the idea that, deep down, everyone is equally lovable, given half a chance. There are no truly evil people, just misunderstood victims. There are no false ideas, just underdeveloped good intentions. Achieving something is less important than wanting to achieve; and wanting to achieve is less important than believing you can. And the greatest sin you can commit is to stop believing in yourself.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, it chirps that whatever is good in me is definitive, overwhelming, more than enough. Vanity is a pot that boils and boils until nothing is left but a sense of achievement.
The voice of the Matrix is one of despair, where undespoiled Good does not exist anywhere; and oddly, the voice of Disney is sort of the same—because when we define the ultimate good as something so paltry as a sense of self-worth, this worldview shuts out paradise just as firmly as frank despair does.
In both vanity and self-loathing, the temptation is to say the same thing, whether we’re preoccupied with our assets or our flaws: “Aha, now we know what I’m really like.” The temptation to reduce ourselves this way is so strong because, as with most temptations, it’s kind of true.
When, for instance, we see our sins for what they are, we can be overwhelmed with disgust, seeing our flaws as if they are our whole selves. In a way, this is appropriate: In our most honest moments, we see that our sins are not quirky or endearing, not courageous or empowering. Sin looks like something that should be flushed down the toilet—every sin, every time.
But here’s where the truth in the temptation has its limits: Temptation says, “This is who you are.” But reality continues, “Yes, you see it clearly. Now get rid of it!”
Vanity comes when we look at our virtues (of varying importance) and say the same thing as the self-loathing person says when confronted with sin: “This is who I really am.” Well, yes—but only in part. Vanity is the sin of being unable to look away from that one bright spot in your own reflection. It’s just as limiting a perception as self-loathing—it tells just as incomplete a story about who you really are.
The temptation of vanity says, with partial truth, “Behold, the magnificence that thou art!” But then reality continues, “All right, hot shot. Now what are you going to do with it?”
So whether we’re talking about getting past self-loathing or getting past vanity, the process is the same: Seeing ourselves honestly is not an end, it’s a beginning. What makes the difference is what we do next with what we see.
You may think I’m overstating my case to call this psychological phenomenon a “heresy;” but truly, both vanity and self-loathing say something contrary to what the Church teaches about the human soul. It teaches that we are wounded by original sin, but still made in the likeness of God. You can’t boil that down to any one single virtue or flaw.
So how do we resemble God? We have free will. And that’s what’s at stake here, when we’re struggling with either vanity or self-loathing: Now that we’ve seen ourselves, what do we choose to do next?