Does your illness make you feel ugly? How about rethinking beauty?
Months before I was diagnosed with lupus, I lost all of my hair. It was difficult to fully understand, yet each time I looked in the mirror, I could see the effects of something at work, changing my appearance and leading me into a completely unknown world of wigs, scarves, and other ways to cover my bald head.
Losing my hair also made me realize that, as medications, symptoms, and aging combine in our lives, we need to be rethinking beauty or, in other words, what’s beautiful to us. As weight comes or goes, hair loss widens, and rashes or other manifestations of illness affect our bodies, our perception of who we are in the mirror of society’s ideas of beauty change, too. We might, at first, be very frustrated or saddened by the changes we see. Sometimes, we might fall into depression as the person we thought we knew changes physically before our eyes.
But more productive and positive is, I think, rethinking our concept of beauty and, thus, adjusting to the changes we’re undergoing without feeling like a victim to something that is “robbing us” of the possibility of being beautiful.
Yes, losing my hair was difficult to cope with at first. But I learned that with wigs there are no bad hair days, and they enabled me to easily style and restyle my “look” without spending hours working at it. Yes, they relieved much of the stress that comes with getting ready to face the world!
Beauty shines through our eyes and smiles, no matter how much our bodies change. So, if we take time to boost and nurture our spirit within, we become more beautiful, not less, through those very windows into our soul. Courage, grace, love, and light – these all come through us when we warmly welcome life wherever we are.
Beauty also comes with wisdom, the confidence we develop as we weather flare after flare and survive, even flourish in spite of these challenges. Think of a seasoned athlete, no trace of anxiety but reflecting strength. That is beauty that others who are not health challenged might struggle to find, but that for us is part of our lives with illness.
Faith brings beauty to our lives no matter where we are emotionally with illness. So, as we approach each pang, each new symptom, if we bring God with us into the journey, we can rely on fortitude that enhances our own and brings us even more faith and, yes, life experiences that foster grace and beauty.
Even if we do not have our illness throughout our lives, we will age. And that process will bring more physical changes, some of which we won’t find all that beautiful. By rethinking beauty, we enable ourselves to have a context for illness, life, and all the years to come, that isn’t reliant upon the changes of our bodies but rather on the strength and grace that we build.
And that, yes, is mighty beautiful!
Sometimes, a life punctuated by chronic illness seems like a life out of control. Just when you finish a med or a symptom or flare recedes, wham! Something else happens, and you’re back in that dizzying cycle of doctor-to-pharmacy-to-doctor-to-home.
I know well how much of a chronic illness cannot be controlled because of my years of experience with lupus. Yet, there is also much that we can take charge of, even in the direst of circumstances. Here are some of the things we can control:
How much we worry. In my new book, Don’t Panic!: How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough, I devote an entire chapter to worry, that gnawing emotion that disturbs peace, sleep, our most precious of relationships with others, and even our connection with God. We often couch our worry in a phrase that begins, “What if…” and we finish that sentence with the most awful example of what could happen if things don’t go well. It try to always take control of that runaway worrying by changing “What if…” to “What is…” Stick to the facts and take the days as they come. Control the worry, and you invite greater peace of mind.
Our time in prayer. Perhaps we don’t have as much church time or “just sitting with God” time as we would like when we’re running from doctor to doctor or are too sick or in pain to go out. But we can pray wherever and whenever we are – and that’s one of the most beautiful parts of faith! We take our faith with us. We are earthen vessels, carrying Christ all the time, everywhere. So, we can pray whenever we want to. We control our prayer time. And the more we turn to God in that blessed conversation, the more peace and calm we will have.
What we eat. Yes, each of us has a particular budget, and food availability might be a problem if we don’t live near abundantly stocked stores with great variety. But what travels from our fork to our mouth is completely within our control. We can say “yes” to the cake or salad…and we can also say “no.” Yup. It’s that easy. And if cravings are taking over, we can tame those like we would an unruly pet – gently and lovingly, but very firmly.
Whether we encourage or discourage ourselves and others. So often, if we are negative inside we are that way outside, too. And when we turn our negativity toward ourselves and others, even in the slightest degree, we’re chipping away at the love and support we crave and could benefit from and give. Positive words, positive actions, kind thoughts – these and all other encouragments help build us up and are completely in our control. It might take awhile for these to feel more natural, if we’ve been submerged in the darker side of life with chronic illness. But here’s where we have control: Each time the effort seems too great, we can go back to prayer, Scripture, our faithful friends. And we can wrestle control away from the darkness and fill ourselves and our lives with light.
If you grimaced at the title for this blog post, I’m sure you’re not alone. In the midst of tremendous pain, it can be very easy to push all thought of fun out of our minds. It’s also easy to lose sight of the importance of laughter, humor, or even a small smile – any one of these (or especially all three) can make a tremendous difference on our spiritual and emotional health, even if they don’t bring about immediate physical benefits.
As people with illnesses that cause pain, we often feel isolated. Laughter is absolutely contagious and can be a powerful bonding tool to nurture relationships and bring people closer to us.
Humorous touches throughout our living spaces can be visible reminders of the need to look beyond out pain to something much more pleasant. They also help us understand that God wants us to be “whole” people, that is, he wants us to use all of who we are, including the parts of us that are touched by illness and pain and the parts that have the ability to amuse and be amused.
Smiling is a frequently-overlooked gesture that expresses warmth, compassion and, yes, courage. Each time we smile while still feeling pain, we defy the constraints of our health challenges and bringing up and out a sense of control and a sense of hope.
Fun is a brief, three-letter word that carries with it a profound change of heart and attitude. If we seek a way to have good, healthful fun each day, we spend time doing something positive and, thus, have much less time for the negative. What’s fun about pain? Even staring out the window and watching the play of clouds or animals can take us out of our pain and put us squarely in a world that God created for us to enjoy.
We don’t have to be carefree youngsters, throwing our bodies into vigorously athletic games to have fun. We can be in our most homebound, pained state and still find things to laugh, smile, and play about. Time spent discovering these is not only well-spent, it is grace-filled!
History teaches us many things, but I especially like how it sheds light on how we live and what we feel today. For instance, if you look back at some of the times of great societal upheaval – the American War of Independence, the French Revolution to name two – many began or reached a boiling point (no pun intended) during the very hot days of summer. In fact, the term “Thermidor” was the name given to the month of July, when French revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy in France and re-engineered just about every aspect of society (including the annual calendar). This term was applied later to the overthrow of the revolutionary government, including Robespierre, in an event called the Thermidorian Reaction, in July 1794. Another very hot month, another political inferno.
This blog is not about history (although I appreciate your allowing me to indulge in writing about it sometimes). But we can apply the concept of “Thermidor” in a very contemporary way and perhaps learn from it.
If revolutions can spark during the hottest months of the year, what about anger in our hearts toward our lives with illness? What about frustration toward God for giving us such burdens? What about moments when we lash out at those we love because they “just don’t understand?” What about self-pity parties because we feel oh, so sorry for ourselves when it seems everyone else is getting a vacation and there is no vacation from illness for us? Ever. Can the heat of the summer instill heat of another kind in our hearts – a heat that is destructive and can cause lasting harm to us, our relationships, and our faith?
No flippant question, here. I notice that, if I go outside in the heat of the day, I am not at my best emotionally or physically. Hot weather zaps my energy and erodes resilience to keep my temper tempered, my thoughts away from how uncomfortable I feel (and oh, how it isn’t what I want at all). Yes, I can get angry when the mercury climbs, my own Thermidorian Reaction!
In my previous blog post, I wrote about illness triggers and ways to understand them. I mentioned heat as something that can be a trigger for me. All the more reason why I avoid it! And all the more reason to keep learning from history – we never know when we’ll gain wisdom and acquire awareness!