Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on Polishing My Shoes

Simple manual labor is good for the soul and the mind. While intellectual work leaves the body wasted and the mind exhausted, physical work keeps the body occupied and leaves the mind to take flight without the prescriptions of study. It is curious how in times of physical exertion the mind spies the hidden symmetries of life. Take polishing your shoes, for example.

They are strange things, shoes, with their folds of tailored, tanned animal hide affixed a refined petroleum rubber, but how normal they seem to us. One the one hand, the shoe makes the man. The craftsmanship in the neat layers of leather and those precise dotted patterns of stitching make even the unkempt and ungainly look slick, or slicker. On the other hand we make the shoes, which bear our resemblance, carrying the nicks, scratches, and dents from our falls and foibles. They crease and wrinkle. While technically you can fix them, they're devilishly hard to mend and you can usually spot the scar of the repair. Even like us they over time grow a little too worn to fuss about holding their shape. You can always make them shine, though.

Polishing is an outright absurd practice, though, and among man's most futile activities–mowing the lawn, washing the car, reasoning with people–it certainly ranks respectably high. The wax will rub off at the first drops and dents, of course, but like all futile tasks there is honor in its near-ineffectuality. Who is not impressed at the constancy of a man whose shoes are always polished? His sheer unwillingness to be worn down dull commends him to us, even if he is otherwise deficient, and how much more brilliant is the gleam because of its short-lived luster.

If the shoe resembles man, then the polish parallels his manners. Each makes smooth the affairs of life, and as the wax allow the debris of life to roll off us so the emollients of courtesy and politeness polish our naturally chaffing ways. What petty insults and foolish, honest reactions skulk beneath a layer of glossy custom. How many grievances are averted by the seemingly extraneous thanks, praise, and inquiries of concern–to say nothing of silences–offered under the guise of manners. Too, polish hides the prickly parts of our demeanors and lets others gloss over deficiencies just as it fills in and hides, however briefly, leather's cracks and scratches. A man may be a boor, a churl, or a fool, but if he holds the door for you, or returns your phone call, how unkind will judgment of him be?

Finally, just as with our waxen counterparts, our manners erode over time. The more rubbish that rolls off, the more worn down our manners until we bristle and snap. We reapply the wax and we take our leisure time to regenerate our patience.

Yes, polish and manners may be lies, but they do good. While we may get fooled every so often by affectation and, worse, some may take appearances more seriously than true goodness, a polished world is still a more beautiful one, and to demand matters and people look as ugly as they often are seems a spiteful request.

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