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Jewish World Review
August 7, 2007
/ 23 Menachem-Av, 5767
Aging? Our countenance is the mirror of the soul
At the bus stop the other day, an older man with a cane approached. His face radiated such jocularity and positivity, that I had an urge to ask him about his life.
I couldn't help feeling that he had an interesting tale to tell.
We smiled at each other and the bus finally arrived. The older man found a seat on the aisle. Even though there was a seat beside him, I felt awkward asking him to move to let me pass. Moving was, after all, obviously difficult for him. Instead, I just sat behind him, letting him enjoy his bus ride in peace.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written in Oscar Wilde's prolific literary career. It's a classic. It's truly one of the great works of literature.
For those of you who haven't read the book it was only last year that I actually did so myself Dorian Gray is an exceptionally charming and handsome man. A friend, and admirer of his, paints his portrait and Dorian expresses the wish that he could remain as handsome and young as the portrait and that the portrait age in his stead. He gets his wish. But not only does the portrait age, its features change and grow uglier as Dorian slowly immerses himself in a sordid and reprehensible lifestyle full of ignoble deeds.
After completing the book, I couldn't help feeling that I had heard this message before. Some of the book's ideas expressed were familiar to me. And then I realized, they're in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers).
There are two very Jewish concepts here one being that virtue brings more virtue in its wake, while sin begets sin begets sin. Indeed, at one point Dorian tries to extricate himself from the quagmire of iniquity in which he is drowning. It's too late; his portrait, which reflects his soul, has already been sullied beyond repair.
Which brings me to another Jewish salient idea: The face is the mirror of the soul.
In Proverbs, King Solomon writes, "As in water face answers face, so does the heart of man to man". There is a connection between a person's face and his heart. But it isn't our looks that reflect our innate character. It's the light we project. The laugh lines indicating joy. The brightness of our eyes and the marks left by compassion or disdain. Dorian's face was etched with each transgression he committed.
What intrigued me about the old man at the bus stop were the notes of the history of his life, inscribed lovingly in his facial features.
I have always enjoyed looking a bit younger than my age, but time is catching up with me. I wonder how in the age of plastic surgery and beauty treatments, of reverence for youth and wrinkle-free skin, I could possibly survive the next few decades with my ego intact.
Dorian Gray never lost his looks but his portrait reflected the decadent rogue that he had become. He had locked his portrait away to avoid seeing his decline. But our maturing faces aren't meant to be hidden. They act as a barometer showing us the wisdom gleaned over many years of life experience or the mistakes we are too stubborn to correct; the number of times we have smiled at others or the number of times we have frowned in disapproval or furrowed our brows in worry.
Our faces are the roadmaps of our lives and the lines mark our journey. Sure, looking young and beautiful is great but it is internal beauty that we need to nurture.
Youth is beautiful because it reflects unsullied innocence and unlimited potential. But age has a superior beauty because it reflects accomplishment and sagacity. It is potential realized. You see someone, and what they have weathered, more clearly with the passing of time. That's why older skin is translucent it's letting the soul shine through.
Despite all the preoccupation with restoring our youthful appearance, it is our souls that we have to give a face-lift to. It is our souls, like a portrait, that is left at the end of our lives to testify to our accomplishments and value. Our external veneer isn't meant to be a façade. It is the cover of a book worth reading.
Dorian only had one picture. I have literally thousands of pictures documenting me at different points in my life. They do not age. While I enjoy looking at the pictures in my albums that show a younger me, the older I get, the more my beauty is not only skin deep.
A young girl offered me a seat later on that same day at another bus stop. I guess she recognized the beauty that comes with age.
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JWR contributor Rosally Saltsman has written a novel called Soul Journey. You can see it at her website, here.
© 2007, Rosally Saltsman