Monday, November 12, 2012

It Launched a Thousand Ships

I love faces. I love to study faces. I live and travel in the ‘hood, so I need to be careful about this interest, ’cause I ain’t trying to get jacked for staring at someone, but being careful is a price I’ll happily pay. Faces are a marvel. They are complex. What is it that makes one face pretty or handsome, and another not so much? How is it that a face can make the wearer seem kind, or smart, or honest? Faces are so much more than the sum of their parts. Sure, we might talk about the perfect nose or beautiful eyes, but viewing those features aside from the whole just doesn’t answer the questions. At least I don’t think so.

She: "Stop staring at me!"
He: "No, you stop staring at me!"
I believe in the soul, and I believe that a person’s soul can inform the face the world sees. In other words, a happy, peaceful person can project peacefulness and happiness in his face. But how then do you account for qualities the individual does not possess but the world sees in her face? What about someone who is rotten to the core but projects innocence and high moral character? Or the slightly shady-looking individual who’s the most honest person you’ve ever met? Or, the dopey-looking guy who is as smart as a whip? It seems that we humans believe that a person’s character should be apparent from his facial appearance and that a person with certain facial features should behave a certain way.

David Sedaris explored these ideals in his hilarious (although—WARNING—vulgar and disturbing) essay, “Town and Country,” which appears in his book When You Are Engulfed in Flames. The essay opens with the line “They looked like people who just attended a horse show; a stately couple in their late sixties, he in a cashmere blazer and she in a gray tweed jacket, a gem-encrusted shamrock glittering against the rich felt of her lapel.” Sedaris meets this couple when his flight seat ends up next to theirs. He’s privy to their  conversation, of course, and becomes shocked upon hearing the heavy, profanity-laden exchange—not because he is averse to profanity but because this couple does not look like the kind of people who would use profanity so freely. He describes himself as “confounded” because after all these years he still hasn’t learned that “expensive clothing signifies [nothing] more than a disposable income” and that tweed and cashmere are not markers of a refined character. Granted, Sedaris is speaking about other aspects of appearance than facial features, but I maintain that the ideal is the same. We develop snap judgments about people based on looks, and no matter how many times our judgments are proved faulty, we persist in this practice.

It never ceases to amaze me when I find myself expecting an attractive person to be kind and smart and then becoming shocked and disappointed when I learn she isn’t. Or when I expect a person with an “ordinary” appearance to be well … ordinary and then am delighted and surprised to learn he is anything but. Along with David Sedaris, I am spending a lifetime learning this lesson over and over—that when it comes to human character, you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Yet for some reason we keep trying. 

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