Not everyone is who they seem to be, but their effort to seem to be who they seem to be often protects us from who they are, who they are being someone whom you would much less rather meet than who they seem to be. That is clear.
Less clear is the distinction between the virtue of putting your best face forward and the vice of outright, and downright, imposture. A friendly facade and a false face are not even remotely alike.
Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time of introspection, the one day a year where you must stare unblinkingly at The Picture of Dorian Gray that lurks in the back of your closet. Who is the real you, and how unlovely? What are you doing to improve that inner person, to guarantee that next year at this time the real you will be closer to the nice guy that the world sees? Otherwise, the initials of the Day of Atonement apply: DOA.
Last week’s news is full of tales of covers blown. We found out that Bill Clinton has a short fuse, George Allen is a surprised midlife Jew, and Mark Foley is not a guy you want as a Big Brother. But two other tales of masquerades and their denouements captivated me most. I read them as a divine preliminary for Yom Kippur.
The first is the tale of Paul Vance. A fellow by that name noticed some thirty-odd years ago that his namesake was co-author of the popular song about an abbreviated bathing suit with polka dots. So he began to tell people that it was he who penned the witty ditty. No money coming in, sadly, because he had sold his royalty rights in the naive innocence of youth. He met his wife while spinning this yarn; in thirty years of marriage, he never found the words to unravel the tangled web he did weave when once he practiced to deceive.
When he died last week in Ormond Park, California, his grieving spouse naturally included this intriguing episode in his obituary. Friends of the real songsmith, who has made millions off the tune over the years, called him to check his pulse. The BBC and other news outlets noted the event. Ineluctably, the incident became public knowledge. The tall tale, three decades in circulation, was forever foreshortened.
From Texas comes the story of a man who seemed to be a solid citizen. He had been living near Waco for thirty years, proprietor of an area restaurant. A nice man, a neighborly fellow, salt of the earth. Yet when a neighbor turned up murdered, the police followed the trail back to this fellow. When they ran his fingerprints, they discovered that he had escaped from prison in Alabama thirty years ago, walking away from a job that the prisoners were doing along the Interstate, unchaining himself from the chain gang. He was in the fourth year of a life sentence for murder.
So truth will out. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and in theory you should be able to fool all of the people all of the time, but life is rigged not to work that way. “Falsehood has no legs,” the Talmud says; it can win the sprint but never the marathon. If a person is a murderer inside, if he has never cleaned up the festering sore on his soul, eventually the murderer will be seen again on the outside. And even a seemingly innocuous fraud like claiming authorship of something rather meaningless will not stand. Better to clean it up yourself, better to straighten yourself out, before fate catches up with a heavy dose of humiliation for you and yours.
While celebrating our desire to seem to be who we seem to be, we must supplement that with a strong desire to be who we seem to be. When the being matches the seeming, that is most beseeming.