“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Anais Nin
“He’s ugly!” she said with a frown and a squirm from her seat. The room went silent. There were a few shy giggles from some of the younger children who I could tell were suddenly assessing their opinion of the face of the man in the picture I was holding up as I told a story of him.
I was shocked, not because I wasn’t used to hearing about “ugly”, but because I knew I had to say something. It was one of those moments. And there are some things that I don’t do. Shaming a child is one of them. But, I was taken aback by the severe comment.
“I think he’s very handsome,” I blurted out without thinking. “Look at his eyes, and how calm his face is. He glows!”
She wasn’t sold on the “handsome,” and shook her head vehemently. “No. He’s ugly.”
The man in the picture who lived back in the early 1800’s didn’t need my defending. He was handsome and that was all there was to it. But the children were collectively holding their breath, waiting to see who would win the war of ugly that was unfolding before their eyes. I said, looking straight into her eyes, as kindly as I could, “We see with our hearts.”
She squirmed again, and I could see her trying to understand what I’d said. To help her a bit I continued, “He looks stiff and uncomfortable, doesn’t he?” We talked briefly about picture-taking back then and how still a person had to be to have their picture taken.
“Maybe it’s just his hair.” So we joked about hairstyles in the 1800’s and agreed we like ours better.
I could see her heart softening to possibilities of beauty.
Neither of us “won” the perception “war”, but I knew we’d made progress. There had been a teaching moment for both of us. I needed to be the champion of beauty – the one who valued the soul of the person while giving place to the influence of a person’s life’s circumstances. She needed to cultivate the ability to see beyond what her eyes were telling her while at the same time trusting her gut that she saw something that made her uncomfortable.
Last week my two little boys, Kenney and James, sat next to me for over an hour watching a National Geographic documentary on China’s Elephant Man.
They were mesmerized and scared at first by the face of Huang Chuncai. But they watched my reaction to the images and the heart-breaking story, and slowly saw him the way I saw him: he was a beautiful little boy (now a man) whose face and life were transformed, altered, and challenged by a huge tumor, who still needed friends, wanted to play, and was deeply appreciated by his family who treated him like the rest of the family even though he needed special care and attention. He was no longer grotesque and scary to my boys. I think they would have played with him if they had a chance. It just took being introduced to other possibilities in perception for them to make the shift.
I’ll leave you with a few questions and a story for you to contemplate as I will, too:
When I struggle, do you see my weakness or my strength?
When I produce something less than perfect, do you see success or failure?
When I speak, do you listen for my ignorance or my insights?
We can tell a lot about the state of our hearts and our perceptions of others with questions like these.
Here’s a story I found that goes a little deeper:
An old man sat outside the walls of a great city. When travelers approached they would ask the old man: “What kind of people live in this city?” And the old man would answer: “What kind of people lived in the place where you came from?” If the travelers answered: “Only bad people lived in the place where we came from.” Then the old man would reply: “Continue on, you will find only bad people here.” But if the travelers answered: “Only good people lived in the place where we have come from.” Then the old man would say: “Enter, for here, too, you will find only good people.” Noah benShae, The Word, Jewish Wisdom Through Time
I hope we will want to train our hearts every day to ignore the darkness that the world paints over, through, and around the intrinsic beauty that’s always right in front of us.