Trivial Pursuits

                                                                                                                                                                  August 2010


I just polished my toenails – L’Oreal Jet-Set Shine, a pale pearly pink.  For the past few weeks – during the summer months, when women wear sandals – I’ve been noticing and admiring the pretty polished toenails of my fellow female colleagues at work, most of whom are several decades younger than me.  But when it comes to feet, I can hold my own with the best of them (yes, I know, that didn’t come out right).

Every once in a while I decide to do something uncharacteristic, like polish my toenails – this from probably the only middle aged woman this side of the Mississippi who doesn’t color her hair or wear makeup.  Polishing my toenails will give me a small dollop of pleasure every time I look down at my feet and admire my sparkly toes.  It doesn’t seem like much – because it isn’t much.  But it’s a little something, which is a little better than nothing.

I understand that in the big scheme of life, pink polished toenails contribute only a teeny tiny amount towards my happiness and sense of satisfaction in life.  I’m the first to say that the things that really make me happy, really give me satisfaction in my life, are relationships with people who are important to me – my husband, my kids, my sisters, my friends.  I’d forgo all the nail polish in the world (if I ever even wanted all the nail polish in the world) for one solid relationship.  Still, it’s not an either-or proposition.  One can have good relationships and polished toenails.

It’s possible, I suppose, to put too much emphasis on the little things in life.  Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room the other day – a waiting room, I should say, with a practically criminal lack of interesting magazines – I browsed through an issue of something with a forgettable name.  Article after article featured smiling women exhibiting the 10 ways to get firmer abs or the 12 cooking tips to make the perfect low-fat dessert or the 14 shades of eye glitter to perk up your look or the 7 yoga poses to banish your back pain (that last one I almost tore out of the magazine).  I didn’t see a single article about a meaningful relationship.  This is symptomatic, I think, of a society that puts too much emphasis on trivial pursuits (and likes to enumerate them).  Having a life devoid of trivial pursuits, on the other hand, could get wearisome.  I mean, sometimes you feel like, say, one or more of the available 14 shades of eye glitter to perk up your look.

When I was younger, I was quite anti-trivial in my outlook on life – one might even say “severe” (if one were feeling unkind). I looked down on trivial pursuits as being, well, trivial.  I thought people who focused on trivial things were shallow people. I wasn’t going to spend precious time on eyeliner when there were serious philosophical questions to sort through.   There is an argument to be made along these lines – life is short, and there are so many important things to focus on in life that spending any time and attention on trivial things is time poorly spent.  If we fritter away time worrying about our abs and eyelids, we may not be able to solve the world’s problems.  Time’s a wastin’!

Okay, we’re probably not going to solve all the world’s problems, regardless of how we spend our time.  (Have you noticed how hard it is to solve even one of the world’s problems?  Just when liberals thought they’d got it all – okay, somewhat – figured out, conservatives rose up like one giant blob and said, “Oh no, that’s all wrong; that’s entirely the wrong approach!  You’re making everything worse!”)

Still, even if the world is awash in problems, and even if we still haven’t come to any agreement on how to solve all those problems, I like to polish my toenails – or engage in other equally trivial pursuits – every once in a while.  After all, unless you overdo, it takes only a small amount of time away from working on the world’s problems.  And spending that small amount of time on lighthearted pursuits may actually energize us to tackle the big fish.  Well, that’s a theory, anyway.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time thinking about big perennial philosophical issues and social philosophies.  I read about Buddhism and Taoism; I wanted to solve the world’s problems.  There was an idea making its way around campus back then that the personal is political (or was it the other way around?); it meant that how one lived one’s life was a political statement.  If you were a Marxist, you daren’t exhibit any materialist, consumerist, capitalist behavior; if you were a feminist, no eye shadow for you!  Now, in middle age, I have come to think that deep down I’m a Confucian.  I believe in “all things in moderation,” (and now that I’m a parent, I also like the part about honoring one’s parents).

So here’s the take-home message: having some trivial things in one’s life doesn’t mean one is trivial.  It just means one is human.  It took me years to figure this out. The trick is to not care more than a trivial amount about trivial things relative to the important things in life.

Ah, I can hear you say, but what is trivial to you may be important to me!  Yes, I had purposely stayed away from that can of worms.  One doesn’t want to sound superior – or, in modern parlance, elitist – does one.  I’ll leave sorting that one out for another essay.  For now, I’ll just note that, if polished toenails and the like aren’t trivial to you, then you can go ahead and call me elitist.  I can take it.

Image: April%20-%20Bedroom%202.jpg


One comment on “Trivial Pursuits

  1. Ellen, I’m quite an admirer of the great Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. But there is a point where he is, IMHO, too severe about theatrical entertainments. In his defense, of course, I must admit that too many of these in his Rome were mere glorifications or pageants.

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