This Author Suffered A Catastrophic Brain Stroke—Here's What She Now Knows About Self-Worth
I'll never forget seeing my paralyzed face for the first time, months after my stroke. I'd been semi-unconscious and far too sick to move, let alone get out of bed to look in a mirror.
Since part of my brain was actually removed and so much trauma had been inflicted just to save my life, the process of "waking up" was painfully slow. My brain was so foggy, I couldn't make sense of what had happened to me. I had no feeling on the right side of my face and intense double vision (both of which continue to this day), so I knew something was off.
But it wasn't until I looked in the mirror that my new reality hit me full force. My face drooped like warm clay, and my right eye severely crossed in and down. It was like seeing a stranger in the mirror, which was interesting since my face and eyes were exactly the same, except their muscles were no longer connected to the impulses from my brain. I didn't cry. I just stared, more confused than anything else. My appearance had been so important. What now?
A note on beauty.
I think our skewed ideas about beauty, particularly if we're women, are so deeply rooted that none of us have come through unscathed. So many of us have internalized messages that tell us we must look a certain way to gain acceptance. You've gotta look good. You've gotta pull it all together and not let anything bad hang out. You've gotta juggle all the parts of your life effortlessly and be a model of everything our society applauds. In other words, to be loved by others requires that we invest a lot of effort and a lot of makeup.
While these issues tend to particularly affect females, this conversation is important for men too. Men certainly can be subject to some of these same struggles over self-image and self-worth. Given the general lack of wise voices and teachers in this arena, all of us are affected. Yes, in some ways, men are part of the problem, but by no means are they the only problem, and they are not the only solution. We need to be in this conversation together because that's the only way we'll ever find healing. Everyone's voice and listening ear and compassionate heart are needed to move forward.
We all need to ask ourselves who is telling us the story about our beauty. Is it an industry whose sole purpose is to sell us a cure for our humanity? If companies' messages about beauty only told us how unique and lovely we already are, then we wouldn't buy anything from them! We also need to ask ourselves if we're listening to wounding voices from our childhood, families, spouses, or strangers—voices that tell us that in order to be beautiful, something must be sucked in, plucked out, or covered up.
Over the years, I've succumbed to these messages, going to some extreme measures to be thin and considered beautiful. I eventually found a healthy rhythm of exercise I liked and achieved moderation in my eating. Ironically, between my impaired swallow now and the inability to be very active, gaining weight is hard because I can't eat much! I wouldn't recommend this route to skinniness to anyone.
But my laundry list of health issues has gifted me with one interesting benefit.
Which was: No single issue could become my entire focus. My facial paralysis wasn't going to be the end of the world because after my stroke, I couldn't walk or eat either. In this same way, perhaps all of us can learn how to redirect our focus from our navels to what's going on around us, to other people.
The experience of living through near-death and disability not only has compelled me to question the definition of beauty, but it also has helped me to embrace the divine love that reaches into every part of me, not just my appearance.
While I don't know all the answers (heck, I'm not sure I even know all the questions), I've discovered at least one thing: Beneath our pursuit of external beauty is a holy longing—to be loved and desired, valued and lifted up, without having to earn it. We're simultaneously weak and wonderful, fragile and fabulous, and there's no shame in revealing that truth. In fact, there's incredible freedom in doing so. Our outward beauty isn't what makes us worthy of love; rather, being loved in spite of everything that's unlovely about us is what makes us truly beautiful.
It's important to understand that another human being isn't required to propel us toward this beloved state. No significant other can ever love us enough to erase every trace of self-doubt. Nor is our self-love enough. Loving ourselves is a good and necessary thing, but it isn't the end goal. We can't help but be biased, fickle, and self-serving, and those are not the attributes of the kind of love that transforms us.
But our culture's beauty standards do not last.
At its core is the reality that our bodies will never be any younger than they are today. We will never revert to the flexibility or metabolism or possibilities we had before. Even if I didn't look in the mirror, all I'd need to do is listen to the creaks and cracks of my beat-down, disabled body. The truth is, the pursuit of our culture's standard of beauty can lead only to disappointment in a world where everything is quite literally in a constant state of decline and decay. (Now that's a cheery thought, right?)
This external hyperfocus is really about trying to avoid pain—the pain of insecurity, rejection, loneliness, growing old, and the loss of abilities. Since these experiences are inevitable parts of our humanity, attempts to avoid them will leave us feeling endlessly unsatisfied and hopeless. In trying to avoid the pain, we end up making the pain much worse. The pursuit of superficial beauty and, at its core, the quest for immortality can lead only to a harsh reality: That death is closer than we think, and no magic treatment, surgeon, or prayer can do a thing to prevent it.
While I still look in the mirror and often don't love what I see, with each passing year I long for the kind of beauty that is ultimately produced only by a love that heals, refines, and makes me whole.
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