Saturday, May 21, 2016

Thoughts on Acne and Grace

A little departure from whining about motherhood today to reflect on two constants in my life: Acne and grace.  Unfortunately, I probably spend more time thinking about the former, and that tells you a lot about what is wrong with my life.  The grace part is less---wait for the awesome pun--in your face (ha! was that amazing or what!) so it's easier to lose sight of.  But nonetheless, as I hope my overall life demonstrates, grace undergirds it.

So the other day it occurred to me that my skin problems might offer a great metaphor for grace. But before we get to grace, I want to try to explain the Christian concept of sin, because people seem to misunderstand it (quite possibly because so many Christians are total jerks about it, more on that later).  The secular world thinks Christians are a huge kill joy in all their sin talk, telling folks they can't do this and that, which many of them often do.  In many folks' minds and in the way many Christians communicate it, the concept of sin basically becomes a big list of broken rules (usually perpetrated by those other than the people who harp on sin, endearing them to everyone who knows them).  In actuality, sin is simply the human condition of being imperfect that we all share in.  If it is CNN Breaking News to you that you are imperfect, then I really can't help you out, you are almost certainly a narcissist if not a sociopath (I'm talking to you, Donald Trump).  For the rest of us, is it really a newsflash that we are not perfect?  That we make mistakes? That we hurt others? That we do and say things we regret? That we need to apologize on occasion, if not frequently/every single day? That we can be selfish and petty and exclusive and jealous and just plain hateful?  I didn't think so.  Now, it may be hard to admit that to ourselves and others, and we may even hide it very well, and some of us may have a really really hard time apologizing for anything.  But in the quiet of our hearts, we know the real deal.  We fall short of the ideal we have for even ourselves.

So sin is like when I look in the mirror and clearly see right there on my face that I have pretty bad acne (which, just to be clear, is not a sin, I'm just trying to illustrate something here).  My skin is far from perfect, and quite frankly, I really can't stand that.  So I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying about it, trying to get rid of it, trying to hide it.  Deep dark secret--I pick at it constantly just from the anxious need to feel I am DOING something about it.  Sometimes I succeed--maybe my pimples are not so numerous some days, and I can effectively cover them all up with make up.  And those days I might feel pretty good about myself.  But I know that lurking beneath all my products, those zits are still there, and I feel kind of...ugly.   I may even be hypercritical of others' imperfections to make me feel better about my own--noticing all those people out there with cankles since my nice slim ankles are one of my best features (and those who know me are DYING of laughter right now.  I'm being sarcastic.  I have the worst ankles the world has ever seen).  You may not be able to stand all the more clear-skinned people because you are so jealous.  Your acne not only makes you feel less-than, it builds walls between you and others.  So that's sin (and again, having acne--or cankles--is not a sin.  Unless you attend church in Hollywood or some kind of supermodel church.  Then, maybe so).

Then let's say one day you are due to meet the world's foremost authority on skin, some kind of super dermatologist crossed with a beauty critic/mogul/Oprah, someone who goes around judging skin and saying whether or not skin is acceptable or not.  You've slathered on all your make up and tried to get things looking OK so this person--and we're going to make her a SHE because it's my illustration so there--so she at least won't be repulsed by your skin.  You meet her, you chat, and then she takes out a  wet cloth and starts wiping all your make up off.  You are kind of freaked out (because, hello, that's just weird, a stranger wiping your face like that.  So is the idea of some kind of skin goddess, but again, let's go with the illustration, people!)  but you let her do it, and soon you are barefaced before her and you have to admit, yeah, I have terrible, acne-pocked skin.  And you wait for her to say, yuck, it is horrible and disgusting.  But instead she tells you your skin is beautiful, she loves your skin, and more importantly, YOU are beautiful and so much more than your skin anyway.  And she says it in a way that leads to to believe she is sincere, and you come to believe it in the depths of your soul.

You go home, you throw away every product you have piled up in your bathroom, and you feel liberated.  The acne is still there, and it may in fact remain a problem for your skin for the rest of your life, but you no longer feel you must deny and hide it, and you no longer feel obsessed with it, ruled by it, because you've come to believe in your skin's inherent beauty.   But because you are less anxious about it, you pick at your skin less, you worry about it less, and your acne actually does get better over time.  Now, you will have days, weeks, even longer periods where you forget what the skin expert said and you descend back into the abyss of acne-ridden self-hatred.  But hearing what the skin expert said and dwelling on that gives you a pathway out, gives you a way to know that you are not defined by your acne.  You can face the truth of its existence, but it loses its ability to make you feel ugly. And because you have made peace with your acne and have come to be free from its power to make you feel hideous, you are less threatened by the more clear-skinned people and less fixated on others' imperfections.  You can actually compliment people on their lovely skin and mean it.

And that is what grace can do.  When you get a glimpse of yourself as the divine sees you (and for Christians, that happens through the person of Christ), it is liberating.  But you can't get that perspective if you are caught up in the carefully constructed image of a falsely perfect self, and that goes for all the Christians out there who think they know they are sinners but never actually talk about how they are flawed, never apologize to anyone, never admit they are wrong about anything, and fixate on all of the horrific things other people are doing.  No matter who you are or think you are, you can't be free from your flaws and failings until you face them first.  And that is confession of sin.  See?  Not that painful! And hugely rewarding for everyone!

Here's where many Christians have sadly given confession a bad name, however, and I'll go back to my acne metaphor.  If acne is sin (and again, not really), many Christians fixate on what kind of acne we are talking about exactly.  They'll say, you know, cystic acne is really the problem with our skin.   We need to eradicate cystic acne, then everyone will be better off.  Of course, none of the people saying this have cystic acne.  They have tons and tons of blackheads, which they will rarely talk about, but no cystic acne.  But guess what, blackheads are still acne.  And meanwhile, not only are the blackhead people not dealing with their particular form of acne,  they have isolated themselves from all the cystic acne people, who think they are a bunch of delusional, mean people because it's obvious to everyone their faces are covered in blackheads.

So the bottom line is, we ALL have acne, people.  Not a truly clear-skinned one among us.  Even Gisele Bunchen has a breakout during her period (I'm guessing), but she just stays at home instead of being photographed in a bikini.  We all need to approach each other with massive amounts of compassion and empathy and to remind each other that the Great Dermatologist loves us all and thinks we are gorgeous.

And that is the end of a truly bizarre extended metaphor.  If anyone is confused, well, I don't blame you.  Much grace and peace to all.

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