Vanity and Improvement: An Ethical Evaluation of the Gym-Selfie

Pride may be a sin, but its true nature isn’t how we’re used to thinking about it:

She says ‘I’ve come of age as a writer in a time when it’s no longer possible just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote her herself as a person of interest. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminists and pop-culture bloggers; the easy outrage, the clubby comraderie.’ So that was the age she came of age in and where she learned how to write to an audience, and always aware of herself as a kind of media personality, right? Now, what happened to her?

What happened to her was she became a mother. She had this viscerally real experience of becoming a mother, and she said one day, she was with her infant child on the front porch of her house and it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in snark. She had not interest in an audience that might want to comment on her experience. She wanted to get utterly into her experience, and let it simply wash over her. It’s as though the dense reality of this baby blew away her preoccupation with with an audience, and with being a personality.

Here’s  something else I want to just read directly from the article. Listen: “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer type could ever be taken seriously, were she to cave in to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s as though her baby just kind of broke through this carapace of self-regard, this sort of knowing, snarky distanciation from reality. This always playing to an audience. And she found herself immersed in the reality of the experience.

Now here’s what I find interesting. It’s a cool commentary on the generation today coming of age with social media, but it also points to a very ancient spiritual distinction between what is classically called humility and pride.

Pride is not simple self-aggrandizement, or self-affirmation. It is a kind of superiority derived from a perceived separation from reality, or at least from other mortals. The moral opprobrium derived from the sin of hubris doesn’t come from the quality achieved by the individual, or even their awareness of it, but from the separation — the distanciation — from other people and from the world.

It isn’t a coincidence that the self-proclaimed nihilists you know think that they are better than everyone else. It’s a short walk from distanciation from reality and distanciation from distinctions, from value, and from the ability to derive enjoyment from value.

In my opinion, the greatest application of the distinction between pride, as theologically understood, and pride as contemporarily, culturally understood, is the much-maligned gym-selfie.

Fundamentally what is wrong with taking pictures of yourself while working out?

A possible criticism is the distanciation that the camera itself tends to create (what Davis Aurini calls “the electric eye“). Such a phenomenon can be easily seen in the horrendous case of Fitbit, where the emphasis on metrics has in some cases so dramatically separated its users from the end goal — fitness — that they believe themselves to be “succeeding” if their numbers look good, even if their health and fitness are observably flat-lining or deteriorating.

If a gym-rat is simply taking photos every time they go to the gym, that’s obviously a concern. The photos, and not the work-out, become the goal, and their health can actually suffer from this shift in focus.

But to listen to the mocking and satirizing of photographer gym-goers, usually by people who rarely or never work out themselves, you’d think that the fitness aficionado had committed some sort of felony against common decency. The degree of contempt and caustic snark behind the criticism of the “vanity” of gym-bros ‘n hoes speaks to a different motive than generous concern.

Which side smacks more of “pride?” The people trying to improve themselves, taking pictures of themselves for encouragement, documentation, and personal enjoyment? Or the people who, from a cultural high ground, distance themselves from the reality of physical pain and struggle, pointing and mocking those arrogant pricks who go to the gym and aren’t ashamed to show it?

The watch you see above belongs to one Jocko Willinck. Willinck is a former Navy SEAL, an author, an expert on business leadership, and an avid athlete. He is regularly mocked on Instagram for regularly posting pictures of his watch, which shows what time in the God-forsaken morning he begins his workout. His response, of course, is to tell them to unsubscribe. Joe Rogan, for one, likes seeing what time Willinck is up and killing it in the gym. It motivates him, and it also motivates me. I want to be more like Willinck, and those watch-pictures remind me both of the distance between me and Willinck and of what I have to do to close that distance.

And I do close that distance.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that any drive towards self-improvement is fundamentally motivated by an awareness of distance between your self and your idealized Self. “Humility,” in the colloquial sense, is the tacit motivation behind any attempt at improving a skill or working out.

What people normally call “pride” is simply a joy in yourself and your accomplishments. This is a good thing, especially when that pride overflows and inspires others to emulate or even surpass you in accomplishment. Vanity in the theological form — the distanciation and separation from this joy, perhaps for viewing it as naive, immature, or “uncomplicated” — is a bad thing. People looking to get in better shape should not let a confusion of these two meanings get in the way of working out, or in participating in the encouraging culture of fitness.

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One comment

  1. Coincidentally, I just began collecting and posting prideful business names of skilled tradesmen. I have often smiled at their inventive names, but have come to understand that they enjoy their work and inevitably carry the finest tools and machines to ensure quality work. Today’s entry: an earth moving machine operator who goes by “Ace of Blades”

    Liked by 1 person

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