In Search of Joy and Truth

2015-06-09 19.36.02There’s a photograph in a silver frame on my desk at home: one that I took at Turner Field on June 9, the last night I spent in my 20s. I snapped the photo, intending to send it to my little brother, to show him I was wearing the awesome customized jersey he’d given me as a birthday gift. But I never sent the photo, and I never posted it on any of my social media profiles. I later stood at the photo kiosk in Target, debating whether to print it out, before deciding that I would. Then I bought a frame and debated again whether to choose this photo or another one.

When I look at the photo, I notice a few things first: my eyes have bags underneath them…all the time now. A sign that my 30th birthday was the next day? My Atlanta Braves necklace is flipped inside out. The grin on my face is wide and silly, and my expression is goofy and weird. I wonder why I can’t have a normal face.

I see the flaws first.

But then I ignore that and start to pay attention to all the reasons why I chose to frame this photo:

Everything I’m wearing: a Braves t-shirt underneath a bold, red Braves jersey. A Braves ballcap on my head. Braves necklace and earrings. When I love something, I go ALL IN. That’s one of my favorite things about myself. Despite the fact that the Braves are nearing the end of the worst season in franchise history, I’m still supremely proud that I’ve chosen to be a Braves fan.

Next, I notice my best friend, leaning over with a goofy grin on her face that is equally as silly as my own. Several rows behind us are other fans, most looking bored. My gracious, was I excited to be there that night, and I didn’t really care who knew. It was the last night in my 20s, and I was in my favorite place in the world with a few of my favorite people. And we had great seats in the second level behind home plate! It’s easy to look at the grin on my face and think how silly I look until I remember how deliriously happy I was in that moment. And then I wish that I could have that goofy grin on my face all the time.

***

I had a bad afternoon a few days ago. I called my mom and woke her up during her Sunday afternoon nap, and then I sobbed on the phone. I don’t know what happened that day specifically, or if it was just a culmination of days of feeling worthless and ugly. I cried about being a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding. I cried about being 30 and single. I cried about things I’m not even sure I can put into words.

Social media makes being a female hard. It probably just makes being a person hard, but I only know what it’s like from the female perspective. Almost daily, I see ultrasound pics or engagement photos. And when I post images of baseball diamonds or references to books I’m reading or articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, I feel like just another voice lost in mass of people who are living ordinary lives with nothing to celebrate, with nothing worth saying. And even while I recognize the fallacy in that thought, I have a hard time stopping it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are—or should be—tools to let us celebrate and rejoice alongside those people. Instead, I let social media add to the pressure of never being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. I lie awake at night and wonder why I haven’t gotten to achieve those milestones that other people have.

I minimize the value of what I have achieved when I make these comparisons.

I’m reading a book right now called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. I just finished a novel called Dietland, by far one of the most radical feminist texts I’ve ever read. And on my desk is Jesus Feminist, which I’m excited to read as well. And all these theories, these ideas about beauty and femininity and spirituality, are in the forefront of my mind. I think about the fact that every woman I know has been gifted with a unique beauty and style. I think about the fact that a person’s body doesn’t exist solely for the pleasure of others, and that we aren’t given the right of judging another person’s physical appearance just because we’re displeased. I think about the fact that Jesus clearly cherished and valued the women in his life, and that I’m blessed to be part of that holy tradition.

This topic of beauty keeps coming up, not just in the books I read. It comes up in really edifying conversations with my book club, a group of strong, beautiful, faithful, intelligent women who never back down from the hard issues. It comes up when I’m teaching a class on argument, and I want my students to start thinking about perception, and I encourage them to reconsider the way they look at the people around them.

And then I cry on the phone about a dress and makeup and hair and all the things that I feel like I just can’t ever freaking do RIGHT. Because, somewhere along the way, the way I’m going to LOOK on the day of the wedding became a stumbling block to being able to celebrate with my little brother, my favorite person in the world, and the wonderful woman who is going to be my sister-in-law. And because, for so long, I’ve been given subtle hints from people—from men I’ve wanted to date, from strangers in coffee shops who check out my friends and ignore me, from conversations I’ve overheard in public spaces—subtle hints that I’m too short, too fat, not pretty. I’ve been afraid to cut my hair for fear that I’ll lose the only attractive quality I have—or at least the only one people seem to compliment.

And there seems to be that unspoken connection, the connection that we can SAY isn’t true but that we somehow BELIEVE anyway: beautiful women get what they want. And the rest of us just have to put up with the leftovers.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who legitimately believed she was beautiful—or, if she does, she hasn’t gotten to that point without wrestling through all this garbage first.  And that makes this pain somehow worse. I want to stop feeling this way. I want to feel valued and cherished, and I want to be able to extend that to the other women in my life. I want to be able to have conversations without feeling like I’m judged for my appearance and found sorely lacking. And I want this, too, for every other woman in my life.

Maybe it happens in baby steps? I don’t know. But I put the framed picture from June 9 in a place that I see it every day, to remind myself that finding joy is far greater than finding flaws. And even when I sit in front of that photo and sob on the phone to my mom, I’ll look to the photo to remind me that maybe true beauty is something different than anything we’ve ever really seen. I really hope that’s true.

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On Beauty and Arrogance

The UK’s Daily Mail published an article this week written by a woman named Samantha Brick, who claims that women hate her because she is so beautiful, which has made her life difficult. The article features numerous photos of Brick, as well as anecdotes about all the times men have sent her gifts and women have snubbed her because of her beauty.

Naturally, the internet blew up in reaction to the article. Between comments on the article, tweets, and blogs, the public reaction is obviously strong and polarized. Some women are thanking Brick for revealing this truth while others are berating her for her arrogance.

Yesterday, ITV posted an interview with Brick and a psychologist (who is female), discussing the article, Brick’s claims, and the backlash. The interview is almost ten minutes long, but well worth watching if you’ve read the article and seen some of the reactions:

The female interviewer and the psychologist are obviously angered by Brick’s claims although they are very professional and logical in their assessment and critique, telling Brick that what women actually have an issue with is not Brick’s beauty, but her arrogance and her assumption that women won’t like her.

My initial reaction to Brick’s article, which was confirmed by this interview, is that there’s just something wrong here. Brick’s arrogance dominates anything else about her, and I can’t help but wonder if the arrogance is actually overshadowing some deeper problem. Has she been rejected by people all her life and is looking for a way to explain it? Does she actually dislike other beautiful women and is trying to mask that trait in herself? I don’t know.

What I do know is that her identity is completely tied up in her appearance (and, maybe, the fact that she lives in the French countryside, which she mentions 4 times in the interview). As a woman, I know how difficult it is not to assume people judge you on your looks. I know how difficult it is when you don’t feel beautiful. I know how difficult it is not to identify yourself with your looks. And I can only hope that, for Brick, this experience is eye-opening, that she sees herself as more than just a beautiful woman because she is that, she is more than her appearance. She just, perhaps, needs to figure that out.

I am the war I fight.

When I was ten years old, I discovered baseball. I’d spent the summer playing softball (right field, where they put all the really bad players) for the town’s league, which gave me enough of an understanding of the rules of the game that when I sat at home one night flipping channels and came across an Atlanta Braves game, I stopped to watch. On the screen, a man wearing a Braves jersey with the number 10 (the same number I wore that summer) hit a home run. I became a baseball fan, Chipper Jones became my hero, and I began progressing toward being a baseball-obsessed tomboy who eschewed all things “girly.”

I’m not blaming baseball for any kind of identity crisis I’ve had as a woman, but I can look back and see that this was a pivotal moment in my life. Even at ten, I already felt the disconnect between myself and other girls. I much preferred reading books and watching baseball to wearing makeup and flirting with boys. I was also beginning to realize how cruel and catty girls could be, and I tried to avoid those kinds of girls at all costs. Being a baseball fan in the mid-90s was just cool enough to earn me some points with the boys in my class, who would actually carry on conversations with me about the Braves’ lineup or whether the Yankees would win the Series yet again.

Because I tend to be an extremist who follows her passions wholeheartedly (even obsessively), I decided that I was going to embrace this identity as a tomboy as completely as possible. I wore my long blonde hair in a ponytail pulled through a Braves baseball cap, I stopped wearing dresses, and I declared that I hated that ugly color pink. To show how pervasive this was: 16 years have passed, and I still own that baseball cap, I am still self-conscious when wearing a dress (I own 6 dresses right now–more than I’ve ever owned in my life–and it takes a lot of emotional effort for me to work up the courage to wear one), and I still avoid pink and polka-dotted and sparkly, girly things. Man, when I make a decision, I stick to it.

I could write of many more examples (and, in fact, I have before), but they would only further serve to reveal the disastrous image I built of myself and what it means to be a girl. And I was also already overweight, an impossible challenge for a middle-school girl to overcome. Over time, I developed this unreachable ideal woman who represented everything I’m not. She was thin and tall and wore dresses and had perfect hair and cooked amazing food and had a man who loved her, and she liked polka dots and carrying a purse and wearing heels. Ugh. If I had artistic skills, I would draw her and tack her to a dart board and become really good at target practice.

Everything I hated about myself became inverted in my image of an ideal woman. And I became mired in a complacency that allowed me to believe that my physical appearance didn’t matter since I could never be beautiful anyway, that the areas of my life that I’m passionate about are useless or unfeminine, and that no man is ever going to love me because someone else more beautiful and graceful will come along that he will prefer. I have avoided mirrors because I didn’t want to look at my own face and body; I have walked out of shopping malls in a haze of self-loathing after trying on clothes; and I had convinced myself to give up on my hope of being married because I’ll never find a man who could love me. I haven’t worn makeup because I never believed any paint or powder could improve my looks, and I didn’t cut my hair partially because I didn’t think any dramatic change would make a difference. I’ve never been able to show a guy I’m interested because I’ve almost always convinced myself from the beginning of any friendship that I’m not worth fighting for.

I also rarely spoke these thoughts aloud. I spent middle school, high school, college, and into my 20s hating the way I looked and sometimes even hating those aspects of my personality that make me different (or so I thought) from every other girl I knew. I knew, first of all, that people might be shocked by any admission of this nature and might try to change my mind. I also knew that, logically, those people might actually be right in confronting my destructive thoughts.

For the past month, I’ve been attending a Bible study with some other women from my church. The Bible study is about the calling of biblical femininity, and I was so resistant and afraid at first. I was afraid that either the Bible study would confirm my long-held belief that I was not good at being a woman or that the Bible study would actually make me confront and abolish that belief.

For years, I’ve convinced myself that I’m on a journey to understand beauty while simultaneously believing that I am not beautiful. I have believed that because I’ve never been in a relationship that I am, clearly, never going to be in a relationship. I have even believed that my grammar skills and passion for literature and my geek obsessions with science fiction and superheroes are wasted talents.

Only recently have I realized that every time I look in the mirror and criticize myself harshly, I am sinning against the God who created me. Every time I make an apology for my “geeky, uncool” hobbies, I am sinning against the God who made me passionate. And every time I think that my knowledge of theory and literary analysis is useless, I sin against the God who created story and provided the world with the hero we so desperately need.

I am sick to death of my sin. I don’t want to be enslaved to the lies anymore. I want to push back the gates of hell in my own life and claim the Truth that my God can heal and redeem my broken heart.

I’m finished with complacency. It’s time to start fighting.

A Story of Identity

There’s a beautiful article on Yahoo about a man who has fought for years to bring together parents and children that were born to kidnapped women and then illegally adopted. After 33 years of searching for the son he never knew (his pregnant wife was kidnapped and presumably killed), the father and son finally met last week.

I think the most profound thing about this story is that the son never felt like he belonged in his “adopted family.” He always knew something was wrong, and he finally confronted his adopted mother, who admitted that her abusive, murderous husband brought him home as a newborn. He now refuses to go by the name of his adoptive family, choosing instead to claim the name his father intended him to have.

So, so, so beautiful.

Read it here.

Beauty and Truth, part 3

One year ago today, I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! This is my 83rd post, which averages to about one every 4.5 days. Not bad at all. 🙂

My very first post was a memoir I wrote about a year and a half ago–an exploration on beauty–or the lack thereof–in my life. Interestingly enough, that subject is something that still intrigues and perplexes me. A year later, it still weighs on my mind often.

A few weeks ago, I assigned my students the chapter on Beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Before I visited Massachusetts a few months ago, my opinion of Emerson was very different. I respected him for his influence on American literature, but I didn’t really appreciate him for his own literary worthiness. That’s changed so much in just three months. I’ve read Nature in its entirety once and my favorite sections many times since. My copy of Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, bought at the Emerson House in Concord, MA, is battered and worn already. Purple highlighter marks a plethora of worthy passages. Emerson’s ideas are constantly running through my mind.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. [ . . . ] Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.

When I assigned the chapter to my students, most of them balked at reading Emerson. He uses big words, they complained. Their eyes examined me skeptically as I raved over his genius. But when I gave them a writing assignment and had them give me a definition of Beauty, I received so many insightful definitions. And while they perhaps didn’t enjoy Emerson as I do now, their writing was proof that they were thinking about beauty outside of just my classroom. And they were incredible insightful.

After reading Emerson, many of them listed things in nature as being beautiful: sunsets, the ocean, rainy days. Others talked about beautiful people or love or gave a literal definition. But I also had each of them make a list of things they find beautiful, and as a good writing instructor, I made one in my journal as well, which I’ll  include here.

So what is Beauty? Have I decided? I think so. Beauty is Truth. Beauty is anything that makes me realize how powerful God is, how excellent his creation is, and how valuable my life is as a result. So here’s a very short list of beauty in my life:

1. Mornings on Camp Creek Road on my way to work, which the trees make a canopy over the road, and the Blue Ridge Mountains are enveloped in fog
2. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe; the Civil Twilight album; The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. Plus, a whole lot more incredible music
3. Driving down a long stretch of road
4. Everything about autumn–the weather, the colors, the scents
5. Renewal and rebirth in spring
6. The ocean at night, stretching to the horizon to meet a sky full of stars
7. Being surrounded by my family at Radius
8. My bulletin board, filled with memories of adventures my best friends and I have had
9. The smell of coffee brewing
10. LOVE
11. Stacks of books
12. The color purple–not the book, which I haven’t read–just things that are purple 🙂
13. Edward Hopper paintings
14. Great works of literature
15. Long, colorful scarves
16. Christmas lights
17. Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC
18. The Concord River flowing past the Old Manse and under the North Bridge in Massachusetts
19. Redbirds
20. Lighthouses

I could go on forever, but twenty is enough for now.

Happy Halloween!

Quiet and Intense

Earlier this evening, I went to the Bird & Baby, our local philosophy club/awesome place to hang out for a lecture on C.S. Lewis from a man studying to be a priest who received his Ph.D. in C.S. Lewis from Oxford and was president of the Lewis club there. The speech was on Lewis’ Abolition of Man, which I read several years ago; the lecture was indeed quite fascinating. Hopefully, the audio recording will be online soon, and I’ll link to it for those of you who might want to listen, but for now, I’m just gonna talk about one comment that Deacon Andrew discussed in his lecture.

He was discussing objective beauty and truth and Lewis’ idea that we need to teach children to feel, to sense the objective beauty that is innate in everything. Lewis believed that everything has an objective beauty and truth attached and each object or person or situation deserves a certain manner of awe. We cannot react to a waterfall in the same way that we react a drop of rain. There is a certain beauty that each entity merits, but the quality of that beauty cannot be the same. God did not design each of those situations to be the same.

Deacon Andrew discussed Lewis’ idea that the ability to feel must be taught. He mentioned that today’s youth are often anesthetized to such feelings. Teenagers must have extreme experiences to feel anything these days: the loudest music, an intense movie on a huge screen, 80,000 screaming fans in a stadium.

That last one got me thinking. At 24, I’m just barely past the age to which Deacon Andrew was referring. And 80,000 screaming fans in a stadium immediately brought to mind the Muse/U2 concert that I’m so looking forward to in October. On a smaller scale, what about recently? I’ve been to four shows in the past month, two in the past few days, and the intensity and excitement always overwhelm me. In fact, this morning at work, my co-workers asked me about my birthday, and I briefly detailed the events of the past few days. I spent most of my time, however, talking about meeting Jon Foreman after the Fiction Family show or the incredible show that The Fray put on Saturday night. I am quite guilty of getting so wrapped up in the music I listen to, in experiencing the shows I attend, in (dare I say it?) worshiping my favorite musicians that those moments tend to become the experiences I focus on. It doesn’t come without a price, however. I spent both Friday and Sunday exhausted after those shows, knowing I needed desperately to do homework but just wanting to sleep. Those bursts of energy I get when hearing my favorite songs sung live are quickly followed by stretches of exhaustion and wondering what the next big thing is going to be.

Fortunately, I know I’m not enslaved to this mindset. As I sat here thinking about this topic, I realized that I have plenty of moments where I find beauty in the small things in life, and that energizes me. Check out my list of the best days of my life–many of them do involve concerts and musicians. But many more involve my best friends, just hanging out, enjoying simple things in life. And as I think back over this past week, I know that those simple moments are the ones that are going to last. Yes, I have an awesome profile picture on Facebook of me with Jon Foreman. Yes, I swooned over Isaac Slade playing the piano.

But more than that?

I had frozen yogurt from this great little place downtown–actual dessert that’s low in sugar and won’t kill me!

I got to take my brother to Falls Park and feel his awe as he saw the waterfall and walked across the bridge for the first time. He’s enamored with Greenville now; he thinks the city is beautiful, and I know he’ll be back to visit.

Chris and I made tacos and cookies and hummus before we went to Asheville for the show Thursday night; hanging out with him in my kitchen is something I’ve seriously missed since he moved home at the beginning of the summer.

Squeezed in between homework and birthdays and concerts, Harvin and I managed to watch a few episodes of Angel. Yes, it’s just a TV show. But for us, it’s this thing we’re sharing right now; watching the show gives us something to look forward to, something to share, something to continually reference and joke about to the annoyance of everyone around us. 🙂 It’s a best friend thing.

And those moments are going to be the lasting memories, side-by-side with singing along to my favorite Jon Foreman song and screaming when Isaac Slade climbed on his piano. Those beautiful, everyday moments possess a different kind of transcendental beauty and power that encompass my everyday life. When those euphoric moments fade, I’m left with the quiet, gentle moments where I can feel God’s presence and experience real beauty and truth. The goal has to be finding that balance, and giving each situation the response that it deserves.

Beauty and Truth, part 2

In my first post on this blog, I posted a memoir that I’d written about beauty. It was an effort to figure out what beauty actually is; it was borne out of my frustrations that real Beauty rarely aligns with societal expectations and perceptions of beauty.

With my fallible, limited, tiny human brain, I will never fully understand Beauty on this fallen earth. But ocassionally, a very important piece of the puzzle clicks into place and gives me a glimpse of the whole picture. Sort of like a highway sign letting me know I’m heading in the right direction.

Last night, I was reading Psalm 45, which, according to the notes in my Bible, is classified as “A Song of Love.” When I got to verse 10, I noticed that the singer directly addresses the King’s daughters:

Listen, O daughter,
Consider and incline your ear;
Forget your own people also, and your Father’s house;

The last part reminded me of Jesus telling the disciples that they needed to leave everything behind–even their families–to follow Him. But, of course, this is centuries before Jesus was born–like the prequel to the Story.

But then I moved on to verse 11, and sort of sat in a stunned silence:

So the King will greatly desire your beauty;
Because He is your Lord, worship Him.

Note the use of the semicolon, first of all. A semicolon really is a great little piece of punctuation; it’s used when a period and a space just won’t cut it, when two complete thoughts are so intertwined that they must be connected in an above-average way.

With that in mind, could it be that beauty and worship go hand-in-hand? If worship is a gift to God, then perhaps beauty is a gift from God, intended to be used for His glory. He wants our beauty and our worship.