How can I overcome the root sin of vanity?
Q: Dear Father Edward, would you be willing to post the virtues to overcome the root sin of vanity and pride also?
A: “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” That line from the Book of Ecclesiastes rings as true today as on the day it was written. Vanity is one of the three root sins that plague humanity. Much of our economy is built on vanity, on helping people to maintain the right “image.” Think of the money spent on cosmetics and trendy clothes and flashy cars and SUVs (complete with vanity license plates).
How does vanity differ from the other two root sins of pride and sensuality? Briefly, we could describe pride as the sin whereby we put ourselves first, ahead of God; sensuality is where we put things first; and vanity is where we put the esteem of others first.
Like the other root sins, vanity springs from insecurity. We place our security in what others think of us. We constantly seek the affirmation, praise and respect of other people. We want to be seen as “cool.” Instead of focusing on Christ and letting him be the center of our concerns, we look to be patted on the back by others. “What will they think of me?” is a perennial concern of the vain person. This differs from the situation where we may desire that our qualities be recognized in order that God be glorified and that we have more influence to bring about good. Having and guarding a reputation for honesty, for instance, might help us to attract others to join us in doing charitable deeds.
Vanity can also manifest itself in shyness. We might worry so much about being accepted that we close in on ourselves and avoid contact with people. Other forms of vanity include gossiping, boasting, “stretching the truth,” and being paralyzed by human respect.
This root sin can also trigger sins against purity. In such cases, it is not the illicit physical pleasure that is sought as much as the feeling of being accepted by another. Alas, such “acceptance” often proves to be short-lived.
Commonly, vanity expresses itself in an undue concern for one’s physical appearance. Or one might become easily discouraged by one’s failures. Then too the vain person might give in to two-facedness or hypocrisy, abandoning his principles in order to “fit in.” A person might seek friendships with high-profile people, for sake of gaining attention. Such friendships can quickly lead to jealousies and bruised egos.
How can someone fight against vanity? Let’s offer a few strategies. The first deals with purity of intention. This means doing good things for the right reasons. If a person does a “good act” out of a desire for praise, the act loses its value in the eyes of God. “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2). The key is to do hidden acts of charity, the kind that only God sees. This builds intimacy with God and cultivates in us a healthy indifference to the praise of the world.
Another strategy against vanity is to cultivate love for Christ in others. That is, offer up good deeds to Christ. Learn to see him in others and love him in others. This awareness of the presence of Christ in others has motivated more than a few saints to heroic and universal charity. By universal charity we mean showing charity and kindness to everyone, regardless of their personality or temperament. This is no easy task. It is easy to be nice to someone who is likable. It is much harder to be nice to someone who is irascible or uncouth or ungrateful. That is why reaching out to a difficult person goes a long way in purifying our intentions. For at that point, we are charitable for love of Christ, not for love of praise.
Finally, learn to admit your mistakes quickly. This helps your humility and nurtures simplicity of heart. The sooner we get vanity under control, the sooner we live just for Christ.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.
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