Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fool's Gold

We have one of those calendars at work that labels every day of the year with a special event or idea to celebrate. July 11th is National Cheer Up the Lonely Day. In honor of that commendable thought, I wrote the following.

Neil Young sang about looking for a heart of gold, about how he spent years looking and not finding. I always wondered, how would he recognize a heart of gold if he ever found one?

How are we supposed to tell true gold from fool's gold? They used to use a touchstone. Being a word freak, I found this out in the dictionary. My ancient and beloved copy of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a touchstone as 1) a black siliceous stone related to flint and formerly used to test the purity of gold and silver by the streak left on the stone when rubbed by the metal; and 2) a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing. A touchstone, Webster's says, suggests a simple test for determining the authenticity or value of something intangible.

So, what is our touchstone for that elusive heart of gold? Judging from the movies, the magazines and--let's be honest--the covers on romance novels, it's the way a person looks. It's Fabio and some buxom heroine in an advanced state of dishabille. It's the impossibly thin, impossibly gorgeous airbrushed models. It's Brad and Angelina.

I got suckered into all this as a girl. I faithfully read Glamour magazine, hoping that if I figured out the right clothes, the right make-up, the right way to act, that I, too, could be popular. I remember when they would ask the famous super models for their favorite beauty tips, one of the most frequent answers was, "When I step out of the shower, I push my cuticles back with a towel." Huh? Honestly, I don't know how many times I read that same "beauty tip" before it finally dawned on me this was super model code for, "I was born this way, idiot. No matter what you do, you'll never look like me."

My Glamour-reading days were years ago. Yet even now, after decades of progress toward full economic and political equality, how many women judge themselves by a false standard of beauty? How often, like my character Isabelle, do they consider themselves inferior and unworthy of love? This impossible standard is simply a slower-acting version of the witch's curse; those who adopt it are inevitably changed over time by the accumulation of slights, rejections, and outright insults. Not getting asked on dates, missing the senior prom because no one wanted to be your escort, wondering what it's like to go out on a Friday night instead of staying home with a half-gallon of Breyer's ice cream for company.

Unfortunately, I'm a slow learner, but the gradual realization finally sank in, the fact that fairy godmothers don't exist, that no one was going to come along, wave a magic wand or produce a magic jar of face cream, and turn me into a princess.

Being a dreamer, though, I couldn't give up fairy tales altogether, which might explain my obsession with the story of Beauty and the Beast. Judging by the number of novels based on this theme, I'm not the only one. There are other tales where the man is changed instead of the woman--the princess and the frog comes to mind. But one of the things that fascinates me about this story and I believe one of the reasons for its persistent popularity, is the question of who underwent the greater transformation. The Beast may change outwardly, but it is Beauty who eventually learns to see past his appearance to his inner qualities. She is won over by his kind, gentle nature and comes to understand his lapses into beastly behavior stem from his pain and loneliness rather than a defect of character.

 If she had failed to look past his appearance, she would never have found her happy ending.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it as eloquently as anyone ever has in his “I have a dream” speech. He dreamed that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I have a dream, too. Of a day when men and women will judge one another, not by a genetic fluke of birth, but by the content of their hearts. By their capacity for love, for selflessness, for wanting their loved one's happiness over their own. That capacity for love is how Isabelle saw past Jonathan's scars to find a man who would never harm her; it is why Jonathan let Isabelle leave despite knowing he couldn't live without her.

There is a reason why the romance genre outsells all others. I'm not the only one who has a dream. Women want to believe that genuine love is possible. They want their heroes and heroines placed in impossible situations, and they want to empathize with their struggles until, in the end, true love triumphs.

We may not live in the best of all possible worlds. Society's standards may be skewed. And if we use the wrong touchstone we may end with fool's gold instead of the genuine article--but let's keep the dream alive. Let's hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Keep on searching for your heart of gold. True gold, not fool's gold.

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