Keeping up appearances is defined as “making things look alright, whether they are or not.” (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms) We Americans invest a lot of time and energy in keeping up appearances, it would seem.
Many industries, from clothing to automobiles, rely upon our desire to own something smart, stylish, innovative, or prestigious. Just being linked to such items can make us feel better about ourselves and assure us of a more favorable assessment from others.
When we display the trappings of success or style or status in our lives, we may feel we are making things look alright, whether they are or not. Maybe the same phenomenon is the motivator behind the growth in the plastic surgery industry. We are apparently undergoing more and more plastic surgery, a trend that has been reenergized as the economy has begun to rebound. And the weight loss and exercise industries also bear testimony to our concern for appearances.
Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with looking and feeling our very best. None of us is immune to the hope that we will be well thought of, even admired. Taking pride in who we are and how we look is appropriate – to a point.
But it becomes problematic when we confuse the appearance of health, or success, or beauty, or significance with their reality. Appearances, after all, can be deceiving.
Moses Mendelsohn, a highly respected German philosopher (who would become the grandfather of the composer, Felix Mendelsohn) was an unattractive man. He had a hunchback. And though he had fallen in love with a charming and beautiful young woman, he quickly learned that his hopes for marriage were slim.
She was uneasy around him and told her father she even found his appearance frightening. And so Mendelsohn asked to speak to the young woman on the pretext of saying a final good-bye to her.
When they spoke, he gently brought the conversation to the topic of marriage and asked her if she thought marriages were made in heaven. She agreed that she did. He then told her that he remembered at his birth something very unusual had happened.
When he was born, he told her, the angels in heaven followed their custom of calling out who his mate would be. And they also announced to him that while his wife would be lovely, she would, alas, have a great hump on her back.
And so, Mendelsohn said, he called back, “O Lord! A girl with this problem will become bitter and hard. Give the hunchback to me and let her be beautifully formed.” Now the young woman’s eyes met his for the first time without fear or discomfort. She looked deeply enough to penetrate the outward façade, and she saw the beauty within his heart and soul.
In the scriptures we read that the Lord does not look at the appearance of a person, but looks instead at the heart. That’s not an easy skill for us to emulate in a world bent on keeping up outward appearances. But think what beauty we may miss if we fail to look deeply and perceptively into the heart of each person we meet!