Dear Inside that Counts,

I guess there's no better time to address shallowness and superficiality in America than now- looking out from under the long shadow of Kim Kardashian's giant ass.

This isn't the first time that a venerated photographer has found something glamorous in an otherwise frumpy public figure. Who can forget the Yousuf Karsh portrait that took Churchill from grumpy old man to Britain's steamiest sex icon?
Rumor has it that Hugh Grant boosted his early career by undergoing a jowl
augmentation to make himself more closely resemble Britain's legendary stud muffin

And it is a shame how superficial we all are. It must be, because everyone who doesn't actively spray tan or carry a tiny dog around in their purse says that it is. "We shouldn't care so much about outward appearances. It's the inside that counts"... women murmur while curling their eyelashes and men concur before looking into the floor-to-ceiling mirror at the gym and kissing their own biceps without a hint of irony. At least some old people walk the fugly walk while bitching about their grandchildren's selfies; but even us hypocrites seem to agree there's something shallow about beauty and something noble about good performance; whether it be athletic, mental, or emotional.

But is someone with talent really more deserving of praise than someone with beauty? Am I justified in scoffing at Kim Kardashian's "contribution" to society while offering my approbation to Elon Musk, Chuck Klosterman, and Amy Poehler?

Some would argue that the beautiful don't deserve the same level of praise as the good because beauty is a genetic accident, while skills like engineering, writing, and playing football require years of hard work and cultivation.

But Peyton Manning also won the genetic lottery, just as much as Heidi Klum did. The same goes for Chuck Palahniuk. The genes that make up our inner qualities may be more obscured and harder to parse than the genes that dictate our eye color, but they're just as subject to Mendelian law. Beautiful people may not deserve respect for their beauty because it came about through no effort of their own, but if they don't, then Michael Jordan doesn't deserve your respect either. Of course MJ put in the time and hard work to develop his genetic gift, but at the core is still an accident of birth. You could put in twice the effort that Michael Jordan did and still turn out to be half the basketball player. And who says beauty is free of effort? We put ourselves through painful ordeals every day to be beautiful, particularly women. It takes a disciplined diet and hour upon hour at the gym to maintain a beautiful body into middle age; why are the fruits of those efforts less admirable than Mickelson's golf swing?

Beauty is fleeting. That's why we shouldn't be caught up in appearances when searching for a romantic partner. At least this is what my mom used to tell me. But life itself is also fleeting. If you buy into the logic that beauty is a non-factor because it only lasts 20 years, then why have friends or romantic partners at all? They will also crap out and die on you after a few decades. And the phrase "beauty is fleeting" also seems to imply that inner qualities are not. But we know that's bullshit. People's scores on the IQ test peak around age 28. The mind loses plasticity as it ages. Symptoms of Alzheimer's and dementia can start to manifest themselves in people's thirties and forties, and a stroke or a traumatic head injury could annihilate your personality in an instant. 

Other people will point out the benefits that talented people bestow upon us. Steve Job's vision and relentless drive for perfection didn't result in a beautiful Steve Jobs, but rather put a useful piece of technology into millions of people's pockets. 

Somewhere in an alternate universe, Steve Jobs came back from a year of soul searching and hallucinogenics
in India resolved to change his name to Steve Bods and become the rippedest hunk of man meat in America.

But mankind does not live by utility alone. There's very little practical value to a ballet dancer or an actor or a hockey player or a painter. You can spurn beauty, aesthetics, and other frivolities if you want, but not without also rejecting everything that exists for its own sake. It seems that beauty, in people as well as objects and actions, is often an ends in and of itself.

It seems counter-intuitive that Adriana Lima is contributing to civilization on par with Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan. And when it comes to everyday life, there is indeed perhaps some wisdom to picking friends and lovers based upon their inner qualities. Boring, beautiful people become increasingly insufferable the better you get to know them while ugly, interesting people can grow on you. Personality can be expressed through myriad facets, while beauty is a single dimension. We often become inured to the appearances of those closest to us but a friend who makes you laugh will likely keep making you laugh.

Of course the non plus ultra is a beautiful person with a great personality. We don't hate beautiful people; it's just that we generally dislike people who don't have a sufficiently cultivated interior. And we consider that to be the responsibility of the individual. If someone is shallow, it's their fault that they're shallow. If someone is ugly it's unfortunate, but genes are to blame. But is it the individual's fault for being shallow? Is it someone's fault if they're born into a rich family and experience an embarrassing lack of character-building trials and tribulations throughout their life?

The hallmark of the shallow and superficial person is a lack of perspective. It's what makes celebrity reality TV so entertaining- seeing spoiled people flip out over "first world problems." On the one hand it's decadent and disgusting. The incongruity could make your skull rupture if you really think about it. How can people starving to death in Africa coexist in the same world in which Kim Kardashian is publishing a book of her own selfies?

On the other hand, I can relate. When I was in my early twenties, I developed an infection in my intestines. I didn't have health insurance and I was poor, so I ate Ibuprofen like Pez and kept trucking for a few months. Eventually I had lost a third of my body weight and the infection broke through the gastrointestinal cavity and into my hip joint. I walked doubled-over with a limp. I had a perpetual fever. I threw up every couple of days. I would sometimes sleep for 24 hours at a time. I tried getting help at clinics to no avail. They kept referring me to a specialist I couldn't afford to see. The frustration and helplessness was almost as bad as the crippling pain. Eventually I bit the bullet and went to the ER, where they removed a foot of my intestines and drained 24 oz of pus. And it only cost me $30,000.

Six months later I was healthy again, enrolled in university, had health insurance, and most of my debt had been forgiven by the non-profit hospital. It was like I had pressed my life's reset button. My situation couldn't have been more different than it had been a year before. And I was completely miserable. I spent my days pining away for a girl with whom I had an on-again/off-again long-distance relationship. I was fishing one day, starring off into space, infatuated and despondent as usual over the relationship. And it suddenly occurred to me. I almost died last year. I was almost bankrupted. And somehow I'm more miserable now over nothing than I was last year over the very real possibility of dying or pooping out my stomach into a bag for the rest of my life. I was the luckiest guy in the world, and it only took six months to completely lose appreciation and perspective.

Everything is relative. Someone traveling at a constant 200 mph doesn't feel any more force acting on their body than someone sitting still, and just as a person driving a car only feels the acceleration and deceleration, we only notice when our situation improves or deteriorates. 

If you live in a Cambodian slum, that situation becomes your baseline experience and your definition of a "good" day or a "bad" day adjusts accordingly. Maybe a good day is finding a bundle of copper wire at the landfill where you live and that generates ten "units" of happiness for you. A bad day is when a friend dies of malnutrition and that generates ten "units" of unhappiness. 

If you live in hedonistic indolence in a mansion in Malibu, that situation becomes your baseline experience and your definition of a "good" day or a "bad" day adjusts accordingly. Maybe a good day is buying a new yacht and that generates ten "units" of happiness for you. A bad day is having to wait too long for the butler to bring you your yogurt parfait and that generates ten "units" of unhappiness. 

In neither situation are you happier than the other because you can only appreciate the divergence from your normal baseline expectations, not your "cruising speed" relative to the other seven billion humans on earth.

Sure, we'd all be happier if we could appreciate the things we have, put minor inconveniences in perspective, and view a long line at the ATM as the non-event it really is instead of fuming over a two-minute wait, but that baseline sneaks up on you. 

Humans adapt. That means they also adapt to not having to adapt. Put Paris Hilton alone in the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a sled dog and a backpack filled with survival equipment and one of two things would happen; she'd die immediately (98% likelihood) or she'd adapt (2%) and when she did finally make it back to civilization, most of the things people hate about her would be gone. She'd be a solemn, wizened outdoorsman with a great appreciation for indoor plumbing and human contact. Those qualities would diminish as her baseline climbed again to her previous expectations of "normal" but she'd never quite be the same as she is now. That's why people who have been through trauma and come out the other side are often so cool. Surviving The Blitz in London during WWII creates a different frame of reference from which to view a Chick-fil-A employee putting mayonnaise on your sandwich after you'd asked for none.

Shallowness and superficiality are probably inevitable in societies as well-off as ours, and shallow, superficial people are probably less to blame for their shallowness and superficiality than most of us think they are. But perhaps more disconcerting are the implications it has for our dreams of a "better" life for us and our offspring. Why strive for "more" if humans are fundamentally incapable of appreciating it?

Sebastian Braff


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