“Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life.”
-Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved
When I was first married, I stood in my underwear one day brushing my teeth, and looked defensively at my new husband.
“I hope you know that this is as good as it’s ever gonna get,” I said, pointing to my twenty-five year old body.
After all, no pregnancy had deformed me yet, there was more than enough collagen to go around, and the force of gravity was still losing it’s constant battle to pull all of my cells down, down, down toward the earth.
Morgan just stood there, staring at me, mostly in shock. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was crazy, or if he just refused to think about what the next five decades of life would do to alter the woman he loved so well.
Or perhaps he simply didn’t care. Maybe he had meant those marriage vows, that he would love me no matter what. Could it be my physical appearance was not the foundation of how he felt about me? Could he be enraptured not by my twenty-five year old body, but by me, the truest me, flawed and fabulous and wholly his favorite person in all the world?
Pshaw. Now we’re jabbering on about crazy impossible things that cannot exist in the real world.
In the real world, we must be beautiful, stunning, gorgeous to have value. Right? Isn’t that what we’re taught to believe?
Or am I the only one who’s been reading the beauty magazines and watching all the commercials about “turning back the hands of time” all these years?
As a young girl, I thought I could magic myself into being beautiful. I suppose this was because beauty and magic seemed equally beyond of my grasp, and more much powerful than my jar of Noxema face cream. So I wished on hundreds of stars for that magical beauty.
Magic turned out not to be my forte, and all those stars were bunk.
Then I considered that God seemed bigger than even magic. I didn’t really know much about God back then, but I had seen drawings of Jesus with a lamb slung over His shoulders, and He looked so kind and thoughtful. Maybe He could help me.
So I prayed prayers for beauty. Prayers for a beautiful face, a beautiful body. I wanted to be dazzling and accepted by my peers. Forget asking for forgiveness or praying for the sick and hungry of the world- I might be teased tomorrow about the way my ears stick out, or the unacceptable bowed legs I walked around in. I had problems, you guys.
Then I grew up and suddenly in college I was considered decent looking. But I had been insecure for so long, these new affirming opinions didn’t make much difference. I just decided to kind of accept that other people saw me differently than I saw myself, and pretend to be beautiful.
That strategy worked for many, many years. I even sort of began to believe I was pretty.
I was making progress.
Then my body hit forty and suddenly remembered the passage in 1 Peter that says “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” My body was loathe to disprove scripture, so obedient it is to the word of God, and the withering seemed to pick up pace with every passing day.
Yes, the word of the Lord remains, but the skin on my ankles wrinkles up like crepe paper when I wear a certain pair of leggings.
All these years later, as I watch my face fall to the earth, I’ve realized those prayers were answered differently than my image-obsessed mind had wanted them to be answered.
At the bottom of all my desire to be admired, accepted, and approved was the deeper longing to become “me”- the woman I was made by God to be. And I wanted that “me” to belong to Him, simply because I was.
It has taken four pregnancies, a serious bout with depression, many hours of therapy, the constant love of a good man, four children who forgive an awful lot of weakness in their mother, and the slow eroding of my youthfulness to understand that beauty is rooted in the way God has loved this whole world full of flawed and often unattractive people, and how there is nothing we can do to stop the force of that love if we will only submit to its supremacy in our lives.
The truth is, other people don’t care that much about what I look like. Life has turned out to be less about my appearance than I ever dreamed as a child. No one is lamenting my split ends or despairing at how my neck skin seems to be the first thing that is succumbing to middle age. No one.
But, gosh, everyone I know seems to long very much to have my empathy, my kindness, and my love. The more I give, the more I love, the more beautiful my life feels, and the more beautiful I feel.
I think I’m onto something here.