Thursday, January 5, 2006

Control freaks

My face is aging. Your face is aging, too. If that bothers you enough, you'll seek out a plastic surgeon to tighten your skin, lift your eyelids, and tweak your cheeks. Of course, you don't have to wait for the ravages of time to look for a plastic surgeon. If you don't like your nose, your cheeks, your chin, your buttocks, your breasts, or various other parts of your anatomy, you can have a plastic surgeon adjust them, too.

Plastic surgeons are certainly easy to find. Pick up an society newspaper or magazine, and you'll find dozens of advertisements for plastic surgeons as well as specialists in cosmetic dentistry. They generally don't advertise to victims of birth defects, accidents, or fires; they don't need to. Pandering, or catering, to human vanity is enough to keep them in business, and primary care physicians and others can always refer non-elective surgery cases to them.

For those who can't afford American prices but can't resist personal improvement through surgery, there are all kinds of options overseas at reduced prices (and possibly increased risk).

There are risks, no matter where you go or who you see. One writer desiring the beauty of youth (rather than accepting the beauty of age) died under anesthesia—an enormous price for what is an illusion at best.

Even teenagers can't resist the attractions of plastic surgery. If you don't like the size or shape of your nose or breasts, you shouldn't have to live with them—just get them "fixed."

The fragile human self-esteem is frightened of flaws and their effect on everything from social standing to potential mate selection. We'll claim we're doing it for ourselves, which is true in that we wish to elicit a positive reaction from others that will make us feel good—even if the others don't see the change as having been necessary. After all, wearing a new dress isn't satisfactory until the compliments come rolling in: "That blue looks really good on you!" "Where did you buy that?" "That suits your figure!"

I think there's more to the interest in plastic surgery than simple vanity, and that it begins with the human need to control our surroundings, our society, and now ourselves. As children, we have little or limited control over anything, where we live, for example. Parents may allow their kids to choose their clothes, even their diets—but can intervene at any time. Parents can dictate homework time and curfews.

When the child goes to college, finally there is the freedom to do what one chooses—even to skip classes to the extent one can get away with it. Single adults and childless couples, outside work, are limited mainly by time, budget, and the constraints of their relationships. Couples with children face the limitations of increased responsibility, but still make their own decisions about much of their lives and lifestyle.

Aging reminds us how elusive control is. The frail elderly often lose the power to choose, and become increasingly limited in their choices, like children. Their independence may be gradually eroded, until they are living in a place they might not have selected, without a driver's license—having lost what has become the ultimate symbol of emancipation for the teenager as well as of the transition from youth to adulthood.

Aging reminds us that there is only so much we can do to control the process and the progress. Nutrition, exercise, rest, and a healthy lifestyle can't prevent tissue from succumbing to gravity and wear and tear.

Aging reminds us of the one thing we cannot control—death.

Makeup, hair dye, wigs, plastic surgery—they don't deceive anyone, least of all death. Technology can keep heart, lungs, and kidneys working for a little while longer, but they can't prevent breakdown and they can't prevent death.

So much of life is about control. We try to control our environment, our government, our neighborhoods (through associations), our schools, and our churches. We try to control the people around us—our coworkers, our families, our friends. We try to control or at least influence the political and spiritual beliefs of others, either directly or indirectly.

But a large nose, a weak chin, or the beginnings of smile lines and crow's feet remind us that we are not in control. We struggle every day with the possibility that no one is. For some, there is no God. For others, God has given man free will. Then there are those who claim that God is in control, but who nonetheless try to take control.

What would the world be like if we let go of the fears that drive the need to control? If we settled lands that didn't need to be "improved"? If we accepted our faces and bodies and looks as the result of our own natural histories? If we accepted that aging is normal and has its own beauty? If we accepted that life is a cycle that doesn't need us and that death is just one part of the cycle? What we if stopped fighting the undefeatable and started living instead, free of the shackles with which our fears bind us and free of the illusion of control?

What would life be like?

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