Not long ago, a friend said something to me that stopped me in my tracks.
It was the sort of thing I never expected to hear, at least not from this sort of friend. At first it seemed cruel and heartless… but in spite of the initial pain it caused, it has become more helpful to me than a thousand compliments.
I’d had a really long few weeks, I’d been sick, I’d been working 6 days out of 7, and what energy I did have (which was minimal at best) all went to making sure I got to work on time and to making sure I did my job properly.
It’s been years that I haven’t had energy for much else, even though I wish I did. I seem to know how to pull it together for work – but as soon as the clocking in-and-out have been taken care of, the thought of doing anything else is overwhelming.
It’s been getting better though. I have made so much progress, especially recently, in making sure I feed and rest myself properly.
This friend doesn’t know about all that.
This friend doesn’t know how hard it is for me to look at myself in the mirror and not struggle with the person staring back at me.
My reluctance to encounter that reflection has nothing to do with the fine lines around my eyes or the white hairs that continue to multiply – to be honest, I love all of that character. So this deeply-engrained self-avoidance is less about how I look and more about a reticence to being seen at all: by myself, or anyone else.
I’ve been making progress there too… but most days I still prefer to be invisible.
But then, this friend happened upon me in a moment when there was no way for me to hide my insecurities.
It was a moment of just being me: exhausted, but still strong enough to get myself out of bed in the morning and take the time to fix my hair (I thought it looked ok) and apply a quick swipe of mascara and lipstick.
I was proud of myself for taking even a couple baby-steps in the right direction. And so, tired or not, I left my house feeling – dare I say it – almost buoyant.
And then my friend popped that happy bubble.
“Wow, you look horrible,” he said. And he said it so matter-of-factly that at first I thought he was joking.
“You look like someone who’s been forgotten… you know, like an abandoned woman or something.”
I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A lump grew in my throat and I felt the sting of tears rising, whether I wanted them to or not.
And then the coup de grâce, “You should wear more makeup, it would help.”
Help? Help what?
“Your eyes look sad. And sad is not pretty.”
At first, the indifference in his voice shocked me – just like diving head-first into a cold ocean, the icyness of his demeanor stole the breath from my lungs. I was dazed, and deeply confused. I looked down at my shirt, my hands, my legs, and wondered how I could have been so stupid as to think I actually looked nice that morning. And there at once was the downward spiral, the sinking feeling in chest, my stomach churning as shame rose from my gut all the way to my bright-red embarrassed cheeks.
“But I put on lipstick today, and eye makeup too!”
“Not enough of it,” he shot back.
I made a last-ditch effort to protest, doing what I always do, trying to explain “Well my hair is growing out and it’s curly and -”
“Your hair is not curly,” he interrupted, “it’s unkempt.”
“But the curls aren’t fully grown yet, my hair is still short…”
“Kind of like your brain?” he mocked.
It’s incredible how the poison of another person’s opinion can sink so deep, so quickly, so viscerally, into our hearts and minds. There’s an old adage that says “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Words – launched intentionally like flaming arrows, landing violently like bombs, cutting as deep as shards of glass through flesh – words carry tremendous power. And that power, like the edges of a blade, can cut two ways: for better, or for worse. Words can be as life-giving as food and water, or as abusive as physical blows.
Part of my journey has included learning how to choose what words I want to hear, what words I allow to influence me, what words I accept into the depths of my soul. After my friend freely shared his thoughts on my appearance, I spent the majority of that day – and the days following – fighting nausea, sleeplessness, and bewilderment. Those horrible words wouldn’t leave me alone, and I wrestled over where I should send the messages they contained: to my heart, or to the hell where they came from.
I felt pain, not because what my friend said was true or untrue, but because I didn’t know what to do with what he had said. It obviously triggered something unresolved in me… otherwise I would have laughed at his nonsense and gone on with my day.
And so I decided to be curious about the whole thing, instead of immediately collapsing into the bottomless pit of self-loathing.
I decided to ask questions, to allow for a moment of discomfort instead of racing to find answers just to make myself feel better.
“An abandoned woman… hmm” I pondered. And every time I thought of it – every time those words, or others – like “forgotten” or “not enough” or “worthless” – echoed through my mind, I felt intense, almost unbearable pain. It went beyond pain. It was anguish, like thorns twisting themselves into chains, tightening around my heart, strangling my spirit, piercing every unhealed wound of my soul.
Still, armed with inner strength born only out of many battles won, I stayed with the pain, I observed the pain, I did not ask it to leave but instead sat down and took a good look at it. And when I looked it in the eye, I saw something I will never forget.
There, in the shadows of all I have tried so hard to forget, was a young woman who looked a lot like me. She was covered in ashes and dirt, her hair was stringy and dull, her skin was smeared with dried blood, and bruises. She looked more like an animal than a person. She was naked. She was sad. And she was hiding.
I didn’t speak to her. But I looked at her, and she looked at me, for a long time. Instead of shame or hatred, I felt compassion surging through me like a tidal wave, and a strong desire to run to that woman and embrace her, bruises and all. She was so lovely, even in all of her mess.
And then, like the light of dawn shattering the darkness of an endless night, I made a life-changing discovery: I was that abandoned, forgotten woman. And that is why my friend’s words cut so deeply. Because I was ashamed of being her. And I was terrified that she was all I would ever be.
That one little spark of insight set my heart ablaze with revelation.
As long as I am afraid of my own story, it will continue to cause me pain, and other people’s opinions of me will continue to cause more turmoil because I am allowing them to ignorantly define situations that they did not shed blood to survive, nor produce sweat and tears to overcome.
But as soon as I have the courage to embrace every detail of who I have been – as soon as I can gracefully say “yes, I was abandoned and forgotten” – only then will I truly be able to see the miracle I have become – a woman no longer lost, abandoned or forgotten…but instead, a woman found.
The power of who I am today comes not just from who I hope to be tomorrow, but also from who I was yesterday.
The unusual beauty that fills my life each day comes not from having attained perfection but from having accepted that sometimes it takes a mess to manifest the glory of God.
Fully embodying the process of a restored life may not be palatable to everyone, especially not to those who, like my friend, would prefer a bit more makeup, or more busyness, or more something – anything – to hide the sadness of all they have suffered.
But that’s ok. That’s for them to decide. As for myself, I know that a vibrant life doesn’t just happen. Resurrection, even for a man like Jesus, didn’t (and can’t) happen overnight. It takes time.
My past will come and go, and that old pain will ebb and flow… but by the grace of God, healing will be my legacy, and wholeness will be my crown.
As much as it hurt, I am deeply grateful for what my friend said – “sticks and stones” included – because it was a gift in disguise, a gift that has opened up so many new vistas of discovery… because now, more than ever, I know who I am.
Abandoned? Once upon a time, yes.
Forgotten? For a while…
But not anymore.