When my oldest daughter Alex was 5 years old and in kindergarten she finally had her first “best friend”. Her friend’s name was Jessica, and Jessica was a beautiful little girl. Black hair, bright blue eyes, big smile…Jessica was truly gorgeous. She was popular too, and sometimes Alex competed for Jessica’s friendship and approval. Some days Alex won and she came home from school feeling on top of the world. Some days then other little girls won Jessica’s attention and Alex came home from school sad and quiet. Then there were days when Alex came home sullen and silent, refusing to eat or be cuddled. I finally got her to tell me what was going on: sometimes, when the other little girls won Jessica’s attention, Jessica would be mean to Alex and tell her that no one wanted to play with her. She would tell Alex that her clothes were ugly and that she was stupid and that no one liked her. And then Jessica and her friends-of-the-day would go off and play.
My heart broke. I wanted Alex to hate this girl, to reject her, to refuse to have anything to do with her. But that’s not how it works. Alex desperately wanted to be her friend, and so all I could do was encourage my pretty little girl to stand up to her friend and tell her that she was being mean. I told Alex to tell her that there is never any excuse for being mean. But Alex refused to stand up for herself. Alex was terrified of what would happen, fearing that Jessica would reject her for good and never play with her again. I told her that it was her choice, but that it made me sad to think she was friends with someone who made her feel so badly.
The funny thing is that I was having my own private battle with Jessica. Actually, it was with Jessica’s mom.
You see, when I would take Alex to Jessica’s house for play dates, I would show up looking like the harried mother of two children who were both under six years old. Because I was a full-time student in graduate school, I spent most of my days with my hair in a ponytail, wearing very little makeup and a t-shirt and shorts. I’d get to Jessica’s house and there was Jessica’s 24 year-old mother, beautiful and young, wearing designer jeans and a delicate blouse, with her hair styled and spiked to match the latest trend. Her house was spotless. Her car was a Mercedes. Her husband drove a Mercedes as well, and he looked just as perfectly dressed and styled as she did.
I’d walk into their home and instantly feel like an old rag: dirty and crumpled.
I’d sit and make conversation with Jessica’s mom…after all, that’s what moms do. I’d be polite and ask her questions about herself and her spouse, about Jessica and their plans for other children, about her plans for her own life and career. I’d shared with her that I was in school…in seminary, actually, and on my way to becoming a minister…and then I’d talk about my former career and how nice it had been to actually have money back when I was still working. We’d chat for a few minutes when I dropped Alex off to play, and then I’d head home only to make a return trip later to pick Alex up and bring her home. I tried as best I could to be friendly and kind to Jessica’s parents, and to be patient with Alex’s desire to be Jessica’s friend. I really understood her pain: Alex felt ‘less than’ around Jessica, and I felt ‘less than’ around Jessica’s mom.
One day Jessica’s parents came by our house to pick up Alex. They were taking Jessica and Alex out for dinner and a movie to celebrate Jessica’s 6th birthday. Jessica’s mom stood at my breakfast bar, watching me cut vegetables and meat as I prepared dinner for the rest of my family. She stood there in silence, watching me, and then suddenly she proclaimed:
“God I wish I could be like you!”
My brain came to a sudden, screeching halt.
“You…want to be…like ME? Why?”
She looked me in the eye and spoke what appeared to be a very painful truth. “You always know what you’re doing. You have a purpose and you’re doing things with your life. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. You know who you are, and I have no idea who I’m supposed to be. I look at you and you are so comfortable in your skin. You know what you’re about and why you’re here. I wish that I could be like that.”
Suddenly I realized that I had felt inadequate because I had been comparing my outside to her outside. What an idiot I was! She looked at me and looked right past my outside and through to my inside, where things actually matter. It made me sad to realize just how empty she felt, especially in comparison with what I felt inside. The truth is that she was right. I knew exactly who I was and what I was about. I may have felt fat and kind of ugly when I compared myself to her, but the rest of the time I was truly comfortable in my own skin. I had a purpose and I knew where God was leading me. I felt solid in all of the major choices in my life: my marriage, my children, and my choice to give up my career and become a minister. In her eyes I had everything wrapped up in a neat little package and it was the perfect package. I had everything she wanted to have and didn’t know how to get. In her eyes, I had it all.
That was such an epiphany for me! I wish I could say that I never compared my outside to anyone else’s outside ever again, but that would be a lie. I did, however, learn to value and find greater joy in being me. I had to learn to let being me be enough to establish my worth, no matter how I looked on the outside. The other lesson I learned was that being flawlessly beautiful doesn’t grant you any peace in this world. I should have known that intuitively, and I guess I knew it at an intellectual level, but I had never really accepted that truth all the way into my heart. After that, I found myself looking at beautiful people and wondering if they felt like Jessica’s mother on the inside. How horrible and painful it must be to feel empty, to feel no comfort in your own skin, no love for your innermost self.
I kept encouraging Alex to stand up for herself when Jessica was mean to her and one day she came home and told me exactly how she did it. It was one of those days when the other girls had won Jessica’s favor and Jessica was busy telling Alex how stupid and ugly she was and how one liked her. Alex said that she marched right to Jessica and told her that she was being mean, and that there was no excuse for being mean and then Alex said that she wouldn’t accept that behavior out of Jessica anymore. She told Jessica that she could be kind and they could be friends, or Jessica could be mean and find her friends elsewhere. I was so proud! Then I asked Alex what happened, and she said that Jessica admitted to being jealous of Alex, specifically of how comfortable Alex was with playing by herself or sitting alone and reading a book. Jessica admitted to being afraid of being alone, and Alex promised that if she wasn’t mean anymore, she wouldn’t have to be alone because Alex would be her friend. Like mother, like daughter I guess.
I could tell you never to compare your outsides to someone else’s pretty, shiny outside, but I know that you will anyway.
Instead, I’m going to encourage you to spend time making your insides beautiful. Feed your spirit! Spend time finding meaning and purpose in this life. Spend time becoming comfortable with who you are as a human being, accepting yourself for both good and bad. Do all you can to increase the good, and limit the bad. Know who you are and what you are about, and invest in this. Spend time cultivating yourself and your personality like a lovely garden, because once people look past your skin, they will see the garden that is you and want to wander inside that garden for hours and hours. They will find peace and refreshment in the garden that is you, and you will become a haven for everyone who loves you.
Never underestimate the power of a beautiful soul, and the allure that it has to others who need a little beauty in their life. And just as birds of a feather flock together, a beautiful soul tends to draw other beautiful souls to itself. What a way to find your friends!
I wish you beauty on the inside.