HUMINT: Beautiful Merit

Merit is in style this year, but it's not a fad. Merit will be fashionable for more than a season or two. It’s beautiful and it’s here to stay. Why?!... Because merit is a lifestyle! What’s amazing about merit is how those who own it flaunt it. You can see it in their eyes and their smiles. Their lives are happier with merit than the rest of us without it.

But you won’t see merit paraded on a Parisian cat walk. You won’t see it on the dance floor of a nightclub either. It might be hidden inside the boardroom’s best groomed metro-sexual or hiding inside a gorgeous super-model… or not. Merit is about expressions of one’s inner beauty.

Described by its most mundane definition, merit is an “admirable quality”. Buddhists tend to think of merit as “insight, power or energy bestowed on the mind when one performs virtuous actions”. In other words, it’s not about who you are, merit is about what you do and who you become after you do it. Having merit is like having universal beauty. Those that pursue it, emulate the actions of Mary Curie, Mother Teresa, or Melinda Gates.

Ideally we would all have tons of merit and simultaneously look as appealing as our own cultural archetype. Dolly Parton for instance, enjoys a spectacular career as a musician (I’m a fan) while simultaneously looking like the model for the American cultural archetype, the Barbie Doll. Fortunately for Americans, the Barbie “look” is at least attainable. If you’re not born with it, the “look” may require a series of painful surgeries to get. Modern medicine has made looking like a cheap plastic action figure with blond hair a possibility.

HUMINT: Throughout history, not all cultural archetypes have been attainable. Michelangelo sculptures of exaggerated musculature size and perfectly symmetrical facial features are an important example. As an artistic genius, Michelangelo and artists like him were able to set a new aesthetic standard for mankind that remains entrenched in Western Culture. I doubt however that he or the toy maker that invented Barbie expected to be so culturally influential.

If the West is seemingly mired in aesthetic cultural archetypes, do Easterners, Middle Easterners or Africans have aesthetic targets to strive for? Of course they do. However there is a kind of beauty that transcends culture. I believe it is merit.

Try it. For the sake of experience, consider each individual you know aesthetically naked. Now look at their merit. Designer cloths are transparent from this perspective. So is makeup, a $400 hair cut, a nose job, breast implants, tummy tucks and toe twisting high healed Italian shoes. We all know the storybook narrative of the “Ugly Duckling”. According to it, inside every ugly duckling there must be a beautiful swan desperate to reveal itself. Really?! The pedigree of our feathers has little to do with who we really are. You’ve got to be naive, stupid or four years old to believe the “Ugly Duckling” narrative. The truth is, most of us are just average ugly ducklings. In a modern society, we tend to make ourselves more or less beautiful with our actions. Now we’re talking about merit.

That said; superficial beauty is an insensitive beast that’s always out of our control. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. Besides cultural archetypes, major world events can redefine what a culture might consider beautiful.

Before September 11, 2001 I was in a unique position to observe a man working on a menial task. The memory has become more vivid than it otherwise would have if 9-11 never occurred. He was Afghani living and working in Afghanistan. His job, at that moment, was to move boxes off of a dusty flat bed truck into a mud brick hut. Over his shoulder was a Kalashnikov rifle. As I recall, he wore a traditional outfit, brown cloth draping over his shoulders. He had a long black beard. His hands were dirty and calloused. He was in his twenties but looked fifty. By all accounts he looked exactly like a warlord’s soldier or a member of the Taliban. Aesthetically speaking, he could have been a cold blooded killer. Maybe he had killed before. I didn’t know. Back then the area was crawling with killers. As you might suspect, he was an outlaw in a lawless land. He was definitely breaking the law. I knew what was inside the boxes. I was well aware he was carrying contraband. He was risking his life and I knew he was. I was helping him do it.

He was unloading school supplies for Afghani children, specifically Afghani girls. I haven’t seen or heard from him since that day but I’ll remember him for the rest of my life. He had merit.

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