“Optics – the scientific study of sight and the behaviour of light”
The Canadian Compact Oxford Dictionary, 2002.
(This is a repost from a 2018 post in Blogger.com)
(Photo: Author’s original)
In daily parlance, Optics refers to the way things look or appear, the way we look or appear to others. Politicians, celebrities, organizations and even ordinary individuals are obsessed with their image, with the optics of how others perceive them. Our mass and social media are obsessed with the latest ‘look’ decided on by the super-models, superstars, heroes and anti-heroes of the moment. We tweet and post our latest selfie and mini-mega moments in the belief that the world needs to know how we look today, how great our kids are doing, how well our newest adventure is turning out moment by moment.
Elementary school students suffer acute anxiety about whether their peers will accept them based on their clothes, their ‘stuff’, and any number of ‘coolness markers.’ By High School, the whole domain of social and self image can be an obsession invading every aspect of teen life: having the right brand of cell-phone, tablet, watch and other gadgetry, the right pants, tops, sweaters, hair-styles, tattoos, FB friends, and twitter followers. The risk of failure in the optics competition is shame, social mockery, and ‘loserism’. Being a ‘loser’ breeds depression and low self-esteem like an epidemic. Never has the toll of childhood and adolescent anxiety, depression and loneliness been so high.
We are probably the vainest culture that has ever existed. All our public figures are primarily concerned with their images in order to gain or maintain or increase their following and popularity. They and their parties employ professional ‘handlers’, ‘spin-doctors’, and image-makers to make sure they always ‘appear to best advantage’ as they announce anything and everything in just the right setting with just the right wording and approving audience. In any contest of optics versus substance we know always know which will win out.
Since the Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Campaign of 1960 initiated the TV debate phenom as an essential part of any self-respecting election, it has been clear that how the candidate appears to the viewer and how (s)he sounds is at least as important as the substance of what (s)he says.
Tired and worn out regimes can plausibly rebound to win despite all their scandals and miscues if they can successfully ‘rebrand themselves’ in the eyes and ears of the public, and simultaneously make the ‘other guy’ look ‘out-of-date’ and even retrograde (‘non-progressive’ ) or anti- the latest trendy cause, even when the truth is otherwise.
We have bred a society with little long-term memory or taste for the real discipline of actually learning anything in depth, let alone practicing self-discipline and self-control in order to achieve a truly worthy long-term goal. Tellingly, the few exceptions appear to be professional athletes and entertainment heroes – exceptions who actually prove the rule! Their achievements make them role models to those seeking similar goals of wealth and fame.
The Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes says that “There is nothing new under the sun”. Rulers and regimes come and go, but the roots of human nature are the same as they have ever been for as far back as we have any evidence in history. Ancient kings (and the occasional queen) and emperors worried how they looked and what their legacy would look like. In Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ a forgotten pharaoh invites the future gazer upon his stupendous statue to “Look upon me and despair.” We might take the unintended advice of this gigantic, faceless and now historically forgotten titan of the past. You may be a titan today, but you will be forgotten tomorrow along with almost all the other deluded self-obsessed optics-spinners who have ever lived. In the end, substance wins over appearance and witty sound-bites in the historical sweepstakes.
‘Pharaoh X’ meant that anyone in the future should despair of ever equalling his greatness, opticized by his monumental statue. The irony is that the things our society most admires and aspires to – wealth, beauty and glamour, fame (or notoriety, its reverse), power – become exactly what Solomon said – vanity – when we near our end. Solomon, who certainly could speak from personal experience, said, “It’s all vanity and chasing after the wind.”
Solomon certainly concerned himself with the optics of his reign and engaged in supreme power-image-making – vast treasuries, huge chariot depots and impressive garrison cities, his own magnificent palace, the “House of Cedar” in Jerusalem, the incredibly opulent and gilded Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, his accumulation of a harem of one thousand beautiful women (many of them hostages to keep the powerful of the region in line), meant to impress all the kingdoms round-about with his power and influence. His father David had beaten all the neighbours into submission, and to keep them there Solomon exacted onerous tribute in gold and kind.
Today, Solomon is one of the minute minority of people who have ever lived whom history has not forgotten. Almost all of us alive today will not qualify for this minority, including most of the popular trend-setters and image-makers of this age, despite the delusion we all have about our own importance.
For all his worldly ‘success’, as Solomon neared the moment of facing his Maker, he came to the conclusion that everything he had built, accumulated, tried, learned and distilled as wisdom in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes was empty. A thousand wives – how much sex does it take to satisfy? In his euphemistically charming metaphor, eventually “the almond tree no longer flowers.”
Gold, silver, jewels, and precious things beyond counting and measuring – how much is enough? When is the addiction to wealth and power filled up? In his own comparison – “the eye is never filled with seeing or the ear with hearing; the ocean is never filled no matter how much water flows into it.”
He had tried and looked into ‘everything that is done under the sun’. He wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as advice to his son, if we believe the introductions to these works. He had many sons but it is reasonable to think he meant Rehoboam who succeeded him. That son quickly forgot everything his father might have told him. But that is another story.
Shedding all the glitzy glamour and optics of absolute imperial power, Solomon boiled it all down as follows. I summarize and paraphrase brutally here: “Fear God and prepare to give an answer for the deeds done in the body. Be satisfied each day with the simple things being fulfilled – enough food, adequate clothing and shelter, a happy home. Be happy with the spouse of your youth. Work hard and honour the God who gave you life. Be moderate in all your habits – neither giving way to greed or jealousy of those who have more, nor bitterness at what you do not have. If you live as if today is your last day and rejoice that you have this day, you will not fear the day when God calls you back to Himself. If you live as if only what you want matters and do not take care of others or have concern for their well-being, you will live in fear of losing what you have and in so doing commit injustice. Then you should indeed fear the day of your death when you must answer to God for ‘the deeds done in the body.”