Have you ever noticed how many of our New Year’s resolutions have to do with our “exterior” (or, perhaps, our “posterior”)?
New Year’s Day launches the big advertising season for gyms, spas and weight-loss products. There’s a good reason for that – all of the people who ate too much from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve are ready to lose weight, and they’re ready to spend money. The gyms, spas and diet plans can sign them up for full-year memberships, knowing full well that a vast majority of will have dropped out by mid-January, with nothing to remind them of their failed promises but the recurring monthly charges on their credit cards.
I admit, I’m a little guilty here, too. I ate too much. I’m committed to dropping a few pounds by my March birthday. I have a very “exterior” New Year’s Resolution.
It all seemed fine to me, until I left Mass last Sunday evening. Walking back to my car, a panhandler hit me up for spare change. I answered honestly, as I usually can, that I didn’t have any. Then he said “You’re very pretty.”
There’s something about us women – we like being told we’re pretty, even if it’s coming from a drunken panhandler trying from across a darkened parking lot to flatter money out of us. I said “Thank you.”
And then I started thinking. Or, rather, the Holy Spirit started thinking for me.
What good is it to be “pretty”? How important is it? I got into my car, looked into my rearview mirror and thought “I’m going to be dead some day.” This body and face that I spend so much time and money trying to work into a presentable shape will rot in a casket buried underneath the earth.
I know – what kind of pleasant thought is that to start a new year?
In the end, I think it’s a very important one. It puts things into perspective. I remember, years ago, reading an essay by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was musing over the inevitability of death, and he wrote that it was difficult for him, at that moment, to look at his hand and think of it decaying in a tomb.
I read that and thought, “Well, it couldn’t be too difficult. After all, it’s already decayed. He’s been dead for nearly forty years.” And then it occurred to me – at the time he wrote that, he was as alive as I am right now. And it was just as difficult for him to comprehend his own death as it is for us today.
And yet, it happened. It always does.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not some kind of dualist who says that the body doesn’t matter. It does matter -- a great deal. After all, God gave us our bodies. Christ took one Himself. The human body is the medium through which we experience this life, and through which we experience God in this life.
I believe that it’s important to take care of our bodies. If we are to do the work God calls us to do, we need to keep our bodies as healthy as we are able. And I believe we have an obligation to take pride in our appearance. Through it we communicate to the world that we consider our bodies a precious gift from God. And don’t forget that, in maintaining a pleasant appearance, we do a favor to all of those around us who have to look at us throughout the day.
What I am warning against here is that kind of preoccupation with the exterior that shifts our focus away from the interior. If all of our resolutions and commitments focus on looking better instead of being better, our exterior appearance becomes a sort of lie. “I look a lot better than I am.”
So I have a new resolution to add to my weight loss goal. Every time I look in the mirror to evaluate my appearance, I want to remind myself: this body is going to die and rot some day. And I want to ask myself, how am I doing with what will be left? Is my person beautiful? Is my attitude, my love for others, my relationship with God, all where it should be?
I believe that, at death, our true appearance will be revealed on the “other side.” Some of the most beautiful, appearance-obsessed Hollywood stars will be, well, considerably less beautiful. (Others, meanwhile, may remain quite beautiful. There’s nothing about being famous or beautiful that necessarily makes one ugly on the inside.) And a plain person like Mother Teresa will be spectacularly gorgeous. (Mother Teresa, incidentally, did take a healthy pride in her appearance and that of her sisters while she was on this earth. Did you ever think about what it must’ve taken to keep those beautiful habits white?)
I invite you to join me. Go ahead and think about your appearance, but don’t forget to link it to your real appearance.