Value in yourself what you most value in others.
Value in others what you will miss when they are gone.
This is the lesson I took from the main character of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, at least the part I just got through recently (it’s one of those books where I’m reading 5 pages a year).
The main character, Dorian Gray, is beautiful. As in, breathtaking. He is like a living piece of artwork. In fact, his friend, a professional painter, begged Dorian to sit for him so he could paint him.
Not surprisingly, Dorian cherishes his beauty more than anything else. It is what gives him value in the eyes of everyone around him (who doesn’t want to be around a devastatingly beautiful person?). He is reluctant to admit that his beauty won’t last forever.
As he reads a book about a similarly beautiful young man who did in fact lose his beauty, Dorian is amused by the fact that he relates to the young man’s loveliness, but not to the fading of his good looks. He can’t imagine his beauty fading. Dorian ponders the main character’s plight here:
[Dorian] never knew–never, indeed, had any cause to know–that somewhat grotesque dread of mirrors, and polished metal surfaces, and still water, which came upon the young Parisian so early in his life, and was occasioned by the sudden decay of beauty that had once, apparently, been so remarkable.
It was with an almost cruel joy … that he used to read the latter part of the book, with its really tragic, if somewhat overemphasised, account of the sorrow and despair of one who had himself lost what in others, and in the world, he had most dearly valued.
That last line hits me as very tragic on Dorian’s behalf, and on the behalf of any of us who find ourselves valuing in others what is least worth valuing, but then valuing that thing most in ourselves, too.
When people pass away, no matter how well-dressed they were, or how put-together, or how remarkably gorgeous, we remember their character. Were they loving? Compassionate? Giving?
And when we go to funerals or weddings or birthday parties, we listen to the eulogies and toasts and wonder if we’ve also lived a good life. We don’t sit there wondering if we’ve had as many good hair days as the deceased or celebrated person.
In the Bible, Jesus Christ talks about the misplaced priorities of the religious leaders, who looked attractively pious on the outside by following God’s laws perfectly, but who missed the love, mercy and compassion behind the laws. Jesus called those men “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead man’s bones.”
There is nothing wrong with being beautiful on the outside, but if there is no inner beauty to align with the exterior, we are only “whitewashed tombs.”
As we applaud the outer beauty in the world around us (it really is worth applauding), let’s not forget to applaud the inner beauty of our friends, family and even strangers. Let’s look for it in ourselves as we look for it in others, and hope that we leave this life with something worth remembering inside of ourselves.