The Other I

December 18, 2014

The Peacock Question

Birds Gallery.net.

I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching.  This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research:  are men and women the same?  are there cultural or religious differences?  does age have an influence?  what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?

Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience:  the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe.  I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service.  When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things.  People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit.  That might not be too surprising.

But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit.  I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice.  I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue.  I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception.  Or self-deception.

The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots.  The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose.  It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.”  “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.”  For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.

As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.”  I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.

But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic?  I’ll dress for it, of course.

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