Earth school, back in session. Not that one ever really takes a break from it, per se. But that homeroom roll call came at me like a ton of #2 pencils on the first day of the fall semester.
We had just shuttled off the 9yo and 12yo to their respective schools and were driving to Starbucks. Isn’t that what everyone does every first day of school ever? (Every Monday ever?) Husband Brandon mentioned how our middle-schooler is becoming more concerned with appearances. Middle school can do that to a person. Through the intercom in the drive-thru, the barista cheerily asked for my order, and I practically sang back, “It’s the first day of school!” He enthusiastically replied, “Oh yes it is!” I pulled the car forward and checked Instagram, spotting a picture of Brandon and a friend. The friend had written sweet words about Brandon and it made me smile. I scrolled to see a snapshot of same friend and ME, but was interrupted by the barista handing over our drinks. As I pulled away from the window, I hadn’t had a chance to read her thoughtful words – I knew they were kind – but it only took that momentary glimpse of the photo to send me into a downward spiral of epic proportions. I didn’t like the picture. At ALL. I said this out loud to Brandon. “You look fine. You’re beautiful!” he replied. But I didn’t really hear him because inside I was crumbling. Before I drove out of the lot I’d been knocked off my feet by a landslide of emotion and the tears rose in full force. Brandon and baby girl sat silent as I drove home, hitting the turns a little harder than usual. I can’t recall what he said as I lurched up into the driveway, but I do remember retorting, “You don’t get it! You’re one of the pretty ones!” By the time I got the house unlocked and made a beeline for the bathroom, I was wailing. I closed the door behind me and raged like I haven’t raged in a long, long time. Cries rising up from the depths of my gut. When Brandon ventured near, I spat out, “Apparently our middle-schooler isn’t the only one concerned with appearances! He comes by it NATURALLY I guess!” In that moment of genuine heartache, feeling less-than, and sob-induced snot, I knew something significant was surfacing. But the only words that roiled up – directed to the Creator – were, “What do you WANT from me??? LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”
Here were all the thoughts racing through my mind: I wish I was prettier. I wish she hadn’t shared the photo but I can’t complain after she wrote such kind words. Why in the world did she post that awful picture?! I wish someone would tell me I’m gorgeous. But no one will. Because I’m NOT! I wish I didn’t care so much. I really REALLY wish I didn’t care so much. Why am I freaking out about this?? What are you trying to bring to my attention, God?! I don’t wanna learn this lesson! NO MORE LESSONS! For the love of all things holy, I NEED A BREAK FROM THE LESSONS!!!
Later, I messaged my friend. We have a close enough relationship that I felt safe mentioning my dislike of the pic along with my appreciation of her generous sentiment. She offered to take down the image because she herself had had a similar experience. No, I said. My visceral reaction is a sign that I have something to tend to in my spirit. And that’s a good thing, right? To realize my vanity is running the show a little too often? It’s a painful process to come to that realization and then feel the need to address it. But when something as small as an unflattering photo yanks anguish to the surface and exploding out into the open, SOMETHING NEEDS TENDING TO. Time to pull on my big girl undies.
Throughout the morning I prayed: Please talk to me. Tell me what I need to hear. Speak the language my spirit understands and translate these tears to that which my mind can comprehend. I re-applied the mascara that flooded off during my fit, and the 5yo and I walked to the nearby college campus for opening day chapel. As the crowd gathered and started to fill the coliseum’s 5000+ seats, I observed.
There are lot of beautiful people on campus. It’s a college campus after all, permeated with youthful faces and energetic bodies. But it’s not only the students to whom I compare myself. It’s my peers. The women with jobs and outfits and attitudes. It’s a certain circle of people who are the center of everyone’s attentions, openly and repeatedly admired on social media and/or in conversation for their beauty, fashionable style, impressive title. I think of how I will never be One of Them. I will never be sought after because of my beauty, style or title. But I want affirmation too. I want to be told I’m beautiful. I want to be sought after for lunch dates and life advice and companionship. It seems the beautiful/stylish/titled ones have these things – these affirmations of their worthiness, if you will – ardently poured into their laps by their many admirers. And I’ve been guilty from time to time, for being so fascinated with Them that I forget there are hundreds of others around me looking for a genuine friend. I have laid my sacrifice of attention and affirmation at the feet of the lifeless idol of physical attractiveness (a pretty face, exceptional social influence, the outfit I want but can’t afford). We humans like to stare at that which glitters; this includes glittery humans.
A couple weeks later, Brandon and I attended a gala with friends. One of those fancy shindigs where we got all dolled up for an event benefiting a local museum. There were gowns and tuxedos, lots of laughing and dancing, and an open bar (which makes for a lively venue, whether or not you’re imbibing). The party rolled late into the night, and the day after, a few acquaintances posted pictures with their significant others to Instagram. The good women who shared photos – and are beautiful in a myriad of ways besides their physical appearances – got lots of compliments on their looks: “Gorgeous! Stunning! Supermodel!” This is what we do in the day and age of social media; it’s the easiest attribute to comment on because it’s what you can see. But I couldn’t bring myself to share a picture of my guy and me. I didn’t think I could deal with the lack of response on my photo. I rarely receive comments about my appearance, and compared to dozens of flattering comments on others’ pictures, sharing a picture felt like setting myself up for more heartache. I have felt that emptiness many times before and I don’t want to feel it again. I didn’t want to be reminded of my less-than beauty. But when I made my choice not to share a pic, I felt like the menacing voice inside my head – that one named Fear – had a little win.
How bedeviled we are with the passing circumstances of things like physical symmetry, clothing from certain stores, and social status. I can’t even verbalize how much it frustrates me. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating that which pleases the eye. Of course not. But it’s our obsession with it that confounds me. And OUR CULTURE IS OBSESSED WITH IT. We place so much value on people and things that appeal to our physical seeing sense that we let it dominate our spiritual intuitive sense, thus forgetting our responsibilities here on planet earth to love ALL, both the ones who cast off a sparkly shine and those who appear to have more of a…matte finish. This idol of physical beauty is PROLIFIC and impossible to deny. It’s also a challenge to remain unaffected by it.
In the western-world, north-American culture from which I write, physical beauty of face, body, house and home is exalted. People CARE. Even people who know better. Even followers of Jesus, who extol his words that outward appearances mean zilch. But you’d never know based on the way some of us behave, so taken with physical beauty and social status – our own and that of others – so fixated on it that we don’t even realize we’re bowing to it. It’s biological fact we are drawn to people with symmetrical faces and bodies. It’s a mating thing. Look it up. But as humans we should be able to transcend this animal instinct. I know some people have. Plenty have not. I’m not there yet either. I like to think I am. I do my best to be. But I can feel myself watching the winsome ones dancing through the crowds at social gatherings and being admired in my news feed, and I am just as fascinated as everyone else. And I know I’m not there when I see an unflattering snapshot of myself and fall to pieces.
Back to the first day of school. As I sat there watching seats fill, those words from Paul settled into my mind: I do not do the things I want to do, and I do the things I hate. I want to not care. But I do. Jesus didn’t give a flip about any of it. He extended compassion to people, all of them. It was kinda his THING. But exterior features or invites to the glammest parties or excessive amounts of star stickers (ever read You Are Special? Those silly Wemmicks!)? Not his jam. He didn’t care who was smart, witty, popular, pretty, or if someone was the best at anything. I do though, and it seems nearly everyone around me does too. And these two ideas are at odds with each other. I want to not care…but I care. I want to appreciate my physical self for the simple fact that it houses my self. My spirit. I want to not be so easily swayed by someone else’s shiny or dull exterior.
After chapel, the 5yo and I walked home, me still silently asking for some enlightenment. Brandon picked us up for lunch, and as I helped the 5yo wash her hands in the restaurant’s restroom, I discerned the song clearly on the overhead speaker, a tune by Ben Harper I can’t recall having ever heard: “Diamonds on the inside, she had diamonds on the inside…” Over and over. I can’t understand one other word he sings but those ring like a bell. Diamonds on the inside. And then I am trying not to cry again because maybe that’s my answer. The reminder of what has always been true: the realest of beauty comes from within. It cannot be measured with a modeling contract or number of likes on Facebook or by the amount of people who invite you to lunch. Why is it so hard to convince myself of this truth?
As the hardest naturally occurring mineral, diamonds have a stellar rep. They sparkle, yes, but to find them you have to dig deep. The word “diamond” actually derives from the Greek word “adamas”, which means “indestructible”. Indestructible. Now THAT is a character attribute I can get behind. And I love the comment of someone out on the internets: “…anyone willing to dig, will be rewarded.” Think about how rewarded we might be in our relationships if we could get past that top shiny/dull layer, down into the bedrock of someone’s soul.
Later that day, these words by artist Brian Andreas rolled up on my phone: “Nothing is teaching you a lesson. There’s only this: who do you want to be? And are you being that?” I want to be someone who values the inside diamonds more than the outside gloss. In others, and maybe most of all, within myself.
Time to dig.