It’s not fair

My last post promised theological reflections on the article, “Are you too Good Looking to Get Sick?” This piece bothered me and I suspect that it bothered you as well if you read it.  In summary, a study indicates that the more attractive a person is the higher their good health quotient.  According to the research people considered to be very attractive are statistically shown to have better health, avoiding a host of diseases and disorders.

clothespin-nose-donaWhy does this bother me so much?  Well to put it simply: it just does not seem fair! Before I go any further and find myself accused of hypocrisy, I admit that I want to be considered an attractive 63 year old woman as much as the next woman or man but I don’t want it linked to better health.  Again, it just doesn’t seem fair but then who said life was fair? Right? I mean why do I get cancer and somebody else doesn’t?  Is it because I’m not attractive enough? Why am I being treated with stage 3 breast cancer and the woman sitting next to me has stage 4 (metastatic cancer).  That doesn’t seem fair to her, does it? Who knows? Maybe it’s because I have a small nose and she doesn’t (another positive physical characteristic listed in the article). Wait a minute, I don’t have a small nose.  In fact, when I was 13 years old I tried going to bed with a clothes pin on my nose to stop it from growing any further.  It hurt too much so I didn’t follow through. Maybe if I had followed through I wouldn’t have gotten cancer at 62.  I know that these musings are degenerating into absurdities but some scientific research topics can sometimes be “crazy making”. They can tempt you into believing that it all comes down to whether or not you dodged a bad gene bullet or got more than your share of good genes in the celestial line-up.  As it turns out Life appears not to operate like a functional family full of siblings; each one born into the belief that they have an inherent right to be treated equally.

Theological reflections:

First, the Gospel of Christ actually begins with an understanding that life is not fair. The world is damaged and people are damaged goods; that is why we need a Savior. Everything is out of kilter not “just our face symmetry” (another one of those hallmarks of attractiveness leading to better health). And there is a myriad of ways that that damage is reflected in our DNA, environment, intelligence, upbringing, life choices etc. etc. We are not wired to be perfect.  The Genesis account of our creation assumes our predisposition to mess things up, even though it was not God’s intent in making us that way.

Second, read the Gospels in the New Testament and you quickly meet a Jesus who has a preference for the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, abused and sick.  He says that he “came for the sick, not the well” which it turns out to be all of us in one way or another. Many would disagree with such a grim assessment of human nature but that is how I read the Gospels and the experience of history and the present realities of human affairs.

Third, there is no mention by the gospel writers of Jesus’ physical appearance in spite of the fact that we have had a feast for the eyes for centuries of a beautiful Jesus who is tall, Nordic, symmetrical, with eyes big and blue as the sky. (Thankfully, in recent decades we have had art and media depictions of Jesus with Middle Eastern good looks- not anymore helpful- but at least less racially biased.)   So, why no mention of Jesus’ appearance in the Gospels or the Epistles of the NT? There is a lot of speculation.  I’ll weigh in on this : it is irrelevant and a distraction to the gospel message.  God in Christ has come to be with us, all of us.  And  maybe those in the world who don’t have good health, good looks or good standing and prosperity are better positioned to the kind of humility that brings souls to the fact that they are in desperate need of the Jesus who says,

“I am the bread of life” (the one who wants to feed the emptiness in souls)

“I am the Good Shepherd” who is willing to leave the flock to look for the one lost sheep. The one who is always with us through whatever circumstances we encounter.

“I am the light of the world” whose light exposes the darkness around us and within us and then shines hope and forgiveness, revealing the way back home to Himself.

The Gospel of John is the place in the New Testament that Jesus pronounces the “I am” statements like the three mentioned above. There are others. At different times in my life at least one of the “I am” statements have met a need; each one profound, personal, hopeful and able to penetrate the walls of resistance to His love, healing and grace. Not always but enough over the years to build a relationship of trust that is not dependent on beauty, health, admiration or even fairness.

Comic postscript:  My husband, David, wonders when there is going to be a study on the health of people like himself who think they are good looking but really are not; but then again that would have to be a study that would take in a lot of the world’s male population. Ah, if we women could only have the confidence of boys!

The New 60?

Last week I read a thoughtful, insightful on-line article by Sharon Hodde Miller entitled, ‘Why pastors should preach on body image.’ As it turns out I am not the only one commenting or blogging about this article. By and large the comments have been supportbrinkleyive but for some it hit a raw nerve with angry criticism towards the author and the church. The following thoughts expressed in this blog and the ones in the article tend to be slanted towards the younger generation.  But there is something for us oldsters to take home as well.  After all, aging creates its own image issues. We are certainly not helped by the recent People magazine cover photo of Christie Brinkley at 60 years old.

From what I can ascertain the angry comments about Miller’s article come from women who have struggled with eating disorders and feel the article is judgmental and damaging. Furthermore, they have been hurt by a church whom they believe has misunderstood the complexities and difficulties of an eating disorder. The perception that they are meant to fix themselves haunts them and adds to an already in place self-loathing.

Even though eating disorders are mentioned in the article (please read this article – very provocative) my sense is that Miller addressed primarily the preoccupation and obsession to improve ones physical appearance to the exclusion of interests worthy of our nature as God image-bearers. By the way, this is not just a female issue.  As the article points out more and more young men are succumbing to the pressures of body perfection.

Personal Background:

Our culture has done a good job of selling us a self-worth based on others acceptance of us. If you were born female that acceptance was conveyed to you by a media culture that said that appearance was your only ticket for that acceptance.

Thirty-three years ago when I was pregnant with my first child I heard a pastor describe our culture’s message in this way, “If you are a boy you will hear the message that there are three ways to have self-worth: good looks, athleticism or intelligence. If you are born female the message will be: good looks, good looks or good looks.”  This was true for me growing up and I figured my child, if a girl would be fed the same message.  Right after my daughter was born a friend asked me if I would like a signature bible verse carved on a wood plaque as a baby gift. I chose the following verse and still have the plaque as a reminder of an important truth. It comes from the next to last verse of Proverbs: “Beauty is vain (fleeting) and charm is deceitful but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.”  I honestly believe I had the verse written more for myself than for my baby girl.

I read that verse now and try to understand it from the most recent assault on my body. I’m missing a breast.  I am not really sure I want breast reconstruction in spite of the fact that recent research shows an increase of self-esteem and positive mood for women who choose to do so. Then again I’m 63 years old.  If I was 33 or 43 I might know for sure that I wanted a body that conformed with the bodies of my gender. But then I go online and see younger women modeling their one breasted selves in bathing suits called monokinis; exposing the surgical side of their mastectomies.  I’m amazed at their confidence; but I am still sitting on the fence about the whole thing. Is my ambivalence reflecting something amiss in my body image? Again, I am not sure. After all if you know me, you know I am certainly not against wearing makeup, especially lipstick (read blog post: ‘The Upside (I mean it) of being Bald’).

Theological considerations:

Body perfection is a natural longing. I believe that as human beings we naturally yearn for perfection and beauty.  Maybe it comes from an innate primal look-back to the perfection we had as sinless God-image bearers or perhaps it’s a subconscious looking forward to a time when all things will be made right through the promise of a new created order with God’s beauty and perfection being the mirror reflecting our perfected selves.  Many of you have heard the following before but I think it’s relevant to the issue: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man (and woman) which cannot be filled by a created thing, but only God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” (Blaise Pascal, 17th century Christian philosopher and writer). We walk around yearning for something to fulfill us; something beautiful, awesome and perfect.   We are wired to be filled with Him, the only all perfect One.  If we chose to go it alone then we are at risk to seek perfection and fulfillment in ways that deliver for a while (maybe) and then let us down with their lack of permanence.  I agree with Miller’s main point.  We are in need of pastors and anyone else who has a platform to tell us the truth about ourselves.  The truth is that the relentless pursuit of perfection in ourselves is futile and speaks of something broken in us and our world. We need to be reminded often that we are loved and of immense value to the one who made us, died for us, forgives us for our many imperfections(imperfect bodies is not one of them) and promises to return and set everything anew with beauty, glory and perfection.  Meanwhile I will let my far from perfect body be a reminder of a needful medical procedure that saves lives and of a self-worth that is really God’s worth being allowed to overshadow me with his message of love and acceptance.

Some asides:

I am so sympathetic with those who have eating disorders. I have treated people with this condition in my practice and I know their struggle and pain. Seeking help and keeping hope lend to healing and restoration. There is always hope.

For the rest of us let us be mindful of being drawn in by a culture that gives us no breaks.  On one hand we are castigated for being overweight and putting a burden on our health and our health care system and at the same time castigated for being too thin and self-obsessed about our bodies (hopefully my blog posting isn’t adding fuel to that fire).  And don’t forget that we are also being fed a steady diet of images meant to cause us to emulate or at least envy the beautiful so we can feed a greedy appearance industry.  Be aware and forewarned that our culture gives us mixed and contradictory messages.

Watch out for comparisons when it comes to caring about physical appearances.  “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man (or woman)… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).  In a different way, feelings of inferiority in comparison to others about appearance diminish us and them in our eyes thus interfering with our ability to get to really know and love them.

I’ll stop with one practical suggestion.

Try breaking the stranglehold of damaging comparisons by intentionally looking for attractive qualities in a person that are not appearance-based.  Look for something about their character, their personality, how they treat someone else, how willing they are  to be helpful, friendly, listening, accommodating, generous, their parenting style, cooking, whatever!  Look intentionally for anything, make a mental note about it and tell that person, or tell someone else about your positive observation about that person.  This is not superficial and inauthentic.  The Lord knows we need help to think less of ourselves and more of others.  It doesn’t come easy but let’s not give up.  I suspect that if we do this regularly we really will break the stranglehold. Our positive view of others and healthier views of ourselves will become second nature, our thoughts deepened and our lives enriched.