“That was the best money they ever spent on you”, is what my mother-in-law proclaimed yesterday after my daughter smiled to show off her teeth. The orthodontia had finally come off earlier in the week and this was Nana’s first chance to see her smile without it.
It hurt my daughter’s feelings, though she wisely refrained from revealing so at the time.
It made me want to puke.
Really, of all the money we’ve poured into the development of this fourteen year-old–from violin lessons to private schools to summer camps to participation on sports teams to just the ordinary food, clothing and shelter–the best we’ve spent was in getting her smile from flawed, but acceptable, to near-flawless perfection?
It seems to me that’s about all you need to know about why the West is ultimately doomed. Any society that places so high a value on so meaningless a metric can’t long survive.
Don’t get me wrong. Orthodontia sometimes improves lives by making otherwise difficult-to-use teeth more functional. But in so far as it is just a form of plastic surgery to make smiles prettier, it is nothing more than a luxury item. Some might consider it no different than the ancient Chinese practice of binding their daughter’s feet so they wouldn’t get too big. The practice was banned with Communist ascension to power. Who says nothing good came from Communist rule, and the wretched upheaval of discarding the past their rule entailed?
Tooth-binding=foot-binding. That sounds about right. I doubt the Tiger mom placed much importance on the size of her daughter’s feet, even if she went overboard on concern over their musical abilities; even if she seemed to reach back to the practices of the ancient dynasties for her child-rearing strategies.
My mother-in-law is a beautiful woman, or was, but age is now rapidly making a shambles of the animating value of her life. Without the physical beauty that she worshiped throughout her life, what then? Should society simply discard her at some point, when she grows too old to be anything but physically ugly? Will she discard herself? Everyone worships something. There are no atheists in this world. But worshipping one’s own beauty, and attempting to instill in close loved ones a similar love for their physical beauty, is hardly the best path towards fulfillment. Or, as David Foster Wallace said in a commencement speech to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College:
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I hope for my daughter that she doesn’t have that “constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” I hope that she understands how temporal and ultimately meaningless is a quest for beauty. I hope that she one day understands that infinity awaits in the depths of her soul, and that the whole point of her small sliver of space-time is to find and nurture it.
I’m encouraged that she will. She never wanted to have braces. She felt her smile was just fine, if not perfect. I told her that a bit of imperfection in a smile (or really any attribute) can make someone more interesting, especially if they learn to embrace the imperfection as part of who they are. The braces were Mom and Nana’s initiative. They both are what could objectively be described as smile fetishests. Hopefully she’ll mostly just ignore them, and mostly ignore that she is in fact becoming a physically-beautiful young woman. Then her smile, as it’s always been, bound with orthodontia or not, will stay magical.