Looking good, being good

Only God can love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair, wrote the poet W B Yeats.

He was alluding not just to a person’s hair, but also to the common human weakness of placing an emphasis on outside  appearances.

Recent research has reaffirmed that people subconsciously attribute positive social qualities such as integrity, intelligence and dependability on how attractive a person is. How false and misleading this can be is borne out by the following true story:

A lady wearing a faded gingham dress and her husband in a rather plain suit walked into the office of the Harvard University President.

They had no prior appointment and looking at them, the secretary felt that they had no place in such a prestigious institution.

When they asked to see the president, she told them curtly that he was an extremely busy man with no time to waste.

They told her then that they were prepared to wait. She ignored them in the hope that they would leave.

When they did not, she had no option but to yield. They were ushered into the president’s room.

The lady began, “We had a son who attended Harvard for a year. He loved the place. About a year ago, we lost him. He was killed in an accident. Could my husband and I erect a memorial to him on campus?”

Quite unmoved, the president answered, “Madam, we can’t put up a statue for everyone who attended Harvard and died.”

“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly, “Not a statue. We thought we’d give a building to Harvard.”

The president directed a sharp look at their faded dresses, and said, “Do you have any inkling of what a building will cost? Harvard has cost no less than seven-and-a-half million dollars!”

For a moment the two were silent. Then the lady turned to her husband and said, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we start one on our own?”

The president stared with disbelief. Mr and Mrs Leland Stanford turned and walked away. They travelled to Palo Alto, California. There they established the Stanford University, which today bears their name and is a memorial to a much-loved son.

Is this to say that being well-dressed is of no account and shabbiness acceptable?
No, for smartness in appearance is both necessary and welcome. In fact being neat and presentable is a sign of politeness and inner discipline.

It is only when outward looks are given undue importance and when we replace or confuse inherent values with form that we lose direction and meaning.

A recent advertisement proclaims, “This festive season, fashion comes first.” One cannot help asking, “Are not religious festivals chiefly a time for inner appraisal?”

It is true that humans alone among the animals are capable of critical self-examination and changing the way they appear to the world.

But it is a gift that must be used sensibly. Looking good is good, but being good is better. 

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