Beauty and Ugliness: Perception Is Not the Whole Picture

Look in the mirror. On a good day, we might check out a few different angles and think, ‘Not bad,’ give the glass an encouraging smile, and walk away satisfied. But on a bad day, no amount of repair can disguise the bad skin or stubborn wrinkles, let alone the desperate expression that hovers behind our eyes like a neon sign: Defective! Imperfect! We can’t get away from that mirror fast enough.

And the sad thing is, for most of us, this encounter with the mirror then rules the rest of our day, more than we realize.

So here’s the question: Is it possible for us to set aside both our self-satisfaction and our self-loathing to embrace the larger picture of God’s intent for us within our true appearance? And what is our true appearance? A poet friend aptly described an “appointed” appearance, wondering if perhaps the man in the moon would bemoan his less-than-full glow even though the whole Earth certainly relies on his appointed phases. He doesn’t have the luxury of jazzing himself up to hold onto that brilliant glow. Instead he must endure the bad days when he is barely a sliver, or even worse, invisible.

How many times have I confided in a friend when I’ve felt especially ugly and hear her insist that I look “just fine”—even a friend I trust to tell the truth? Conversely, how many times have I pranced into a room believing that I look fabulous, only to receive the identical level of interest and attention as on any other day?

It’s easy for someone else to say, “Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s inside that counts.” Of course, I know that intellectually, and my eye automatically forgives and accepts imperfections of all kinds in others. Just not in myself.

Is this really just about perceptions? I think it’s way deeper than that. Beauty and ugliness extend to behavior as well. Take the ups and downs of love relationships, for instance. A beloved spouse, the one we delight in and admire above all others, can behave in a petty, impatient or inconsiderate way. We face grave disappointment and the fear that this could become the new reality. We’re not sure we can handle that, and yet at the same time, we can discover the transcendent beauty of the commitment to weather it through. Those moments of ugliness can only be conquered and transformed by that devotion, that sacrifice of our preferences for the sake of another.

Just as the eyes forgive imperfections and adjust to accept them, the heart can forgive disappointments and adjust to stick it out. I can’t imagine anything more important to God than for us each to get this major truth at some point in our lives, and not just understand it but live it. The imperfect becomes lovable. Can we extend that mercy to ourselves, too?

The Haftorah for this week ends with the famous verse in Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” It would be the height of humility (and a blessed relief) to be at peace with my bad hair/bad face/bad body days in favor of the bigger picture of how much God loves me and uses me to preserve His goodness. A look in God’s mirror every morning would cure the self-loathing blues and temper the self-satisfaction smugness, if I would but look there.

Then maybe, like the man in the moon, I could realize how my appearance is used day by day in the unfolding of the magnificent tapestry of love that is the real purpose of our lives.

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