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Lessons from The Portrait of Dorian Gray

It is said that we all would love to live up to our Instagram account. We would all love for life to be like the happy posts, the smiles, and beautiful flowers that we post to light up our social media. Life, however, has other plans and often life is just plain messy. I feel like if we posted every disagreement, bad hair day, blemish, or misstep, we would soon have fewer and fewer people following us and our daily diary to the world.

In 1891, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde published the extended version of his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The book was first published a year earlier in serialized form in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, but with the editor eliminating about 500 words for decency. In its true form, The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a cautionary tale, a vibrant depiction that all of our misdeeds come at a price either immediately or down the road.

In the novel, an artist Basil Hallward is infatuated with young Dorian Gray, a man about town who seems to lead a charmed life. Dorian’s beauty, as brought out in the artists work represents a Hedonistic world view of beauty for beauty’s sake and for leading a lifestyle with little consequence. When Dorian realizes that his beauty will someday fade, he makes a deal for his soul that instead of age ravaging his body, it will transpose upon the artists painting. The deal consummated, Dorian goes on to lead a carefree life, rife with amoral and questionable choices. Seemingly innocent nonchalance becomes outright cruelty and mean spiritedness. Through it all Dorian remains the same handsome, debonair playboy while subtle changes begin to alter the painting. Years go by and as his friends age, it becomes more and more apparent that Dorian is blessed with the fountain of youth and his actions bear little negative consequence to him. Soon, the painting has so altered that Dorian no longer displays it but hides it in the attic with no one allowed admittance to see it. Dorian goes through misadventure after misadventure with no evident effect. Only the hidden portrait reveals the true darkness of his heart and soul. In the end, Dorian decides that the only way to end this ghoulish existence is to destroy the only evidence of his immorality- the portrait. He takes a knife to the portrait and the servants hear a scream from the attic. Upon finding him, the servants find a disfigured ghastly, aged figure on the floor and upon the easel, the beautiful undisturbed portrait of Gray painted eighteen years earlier.

There is a 1945 movie version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray which is a fantastic lesson in amoral living, the consequences and the ultimate downfall of a life which is solely the pursuit of beauty and lust. A painting done by the artist Ivan Albright (and pictured at the heading of this post) shows the full phantasmagoric effect of the life of sin.

I am in no way suggesting that because we post beautiful pictures or try to capture our best selfie that we in some way have a “Dorian Gray” portrait hanging in our attics, but what if we were able to take our missteps, our mistakes, our past indiscretions and use them to bolster someone else. What if we were to use our experience to guide others to a more enlightened life? Oscar Wilde once said “ Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes”.

What if your lack of clear judgment can be shared with someone to help them steer clear of the consequences you encountered?

What if your negative experiences could be taught and used as a testimony for someone encountering the same thing?

Could you as a young adult mentor a teen with the knowledge that only your years of experience has taught you?

Could you as an older, and hopefully wiser person come along side someone who is struggling emotionally, morally or spiritually?

Could you in the “sage” stage of your life share your life experience as testimony to someone unsure of the next life step?

Our social media accounts are a place to post the beauty of life. Beauty abounds and should be sought out. But as we know, and learn more with each passing day, life is not all beauty and joy and goodness. Can we become unafraid to post the warts, and trials of our life to benefit others? I challenge myself and I challenge you that we can and we should.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite novels. There is a lesson in the book for all of us. As Elton John says in his song “Levon”- “Levon wears his war wounds like a crown”. What if we were to do the same? Imagine the benefit.

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