Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Face truth

Looking back, if I had to name the things I wish I'd never allowed myself to worry about, one of the top candidates would be my looks.

I spent so many years of my life thinking I was unattractive. No, not just thinking about it — obsessing about it.

Today, when I look back at photos of myself during the years when I hated my looks, I can't see what I was so worked up about. There are pictures where I'm heavier than I'd like to have been, but none where I look as bad as I thought I did.

Conversely, during the times when I hated my looks the most, I was engaging in behavior that made my soul pretty ugly — having sex outside of marriage, operating on the philosophy that "mutual respect" was an acceptable stand-in for the love for which I hungered. I don't think I ever really believed that philosophy, but I tried hard, because I thought the alternative was a life without love.

My hatred of my looks was in some way a sense of guilt turned inward, but it had a diabolical quality in that it was nihilistic. I knew that I was living hedonistically and superficially, but I couldn't conceive denying myself the pleasures I sought. So I despised myself on the surface — cursing what I thought was a plainness that made me look invisible — while refusing to look inward. My greatest fear was that what was inside would be not only unattractive, but unchangeable.

Today, years after the conversion that made me change the way I lived, I know that the pleasures I thought were essential lead nowhere without joy. Joy, meanwhile, is attainable even when pleasures are not attached. And I am blessed with a lot more love in my life — including greater appreciation of the love of my friends and family — than I had when I sought to use others and be used with "respect."

I still catch myself envying others' looks, but I don't hate my own anymore. It is partly because I have begun to become comfortable in my own skin. But I think it is also because I am making more of an effort to look at others beyond appearances — to stop objectifying people, and to be truly thankful for the blessings they bring into my life. I still have a long way to go, but even a slight change of perspective, trying to see God in others, helps me to see myself as His creation too and be thankful.

In any case, physical attractiveness isn't everything. I think of the wonderful quote from Pope John XXIII, speaking to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (quoted in Thomas Reeves's Sheen biography, America's Bishop): "God knew from all eternity that I was destined to be Pope. He also knew that I would live for over 80 years. Having all eternity to work on, and also 80 years, wouldn't you think he would have made me better looking?"