The Relational Economy: Currency - Part 4
- Hudson Russell Davis
- 2011 5 May
Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Ugly Duckling” in 1843, and it was an instant success. I understand why.
It tells the story of “a dark, gray bird” called ugly by those around him. Then one day he matures into a beautiful swan. Not realizing his transformation, he finally settles on death as a solution to his pain. He flew toward the beautiful swans and cried out, “Kill me. ” Resolved, he waited.
But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the newcomer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.
More than giving you the secret to being beautiful, or the clues to get someone beautiful, I want to encourage you to reconsider you. The story has its power and truth and yet some of it is no better than the lies it tries to destroy. What is wrong with being a “a dark, gray bird”? What makes “dark gray birds ... ugly and disagreeable to look at”? The story attempted to help us change our self-perception—and it does. But perhaps a “dark gray bird” has its own beauty. Perhaps a “graceful and beautiful swan” is not the standard of beauty.
In books and movies and TV shows we are sold an idea of beauty. We are given a portrait against which we are judged and against which we judge others. This is nearly inevitable given the amount of visual media we ingest. Every TV show picks the “beautiful” person. Every show suggests to you what a person who succeeds should or must look like. The more crass shows laugh at the ugly and pursue the “beautiful.”
The Bachelor shows what an “eligible bachelor” should look like.
The Bachelorette shows what an “eligible bachelorette” should look like.
I am not saying they should put “ugly” people on those shows. I am saying that in choosing they shape our perceptions of beauty and eligibility. Even in choosing or favoring someone we think is ugly—we help define the categories. At one time a “buxom” (large) woman WAS the standard of beauty. Now, a slim figure is called “beautiful.”
Looking for beauty in the curve of your hips is dangerous and fleeting. You must believe in more than this! If you stop there you will be a prisoner to that state of being and destined, in time, to lose who you are. I must agree that I have value beyond the cut of my pecs. I must! Or I will be chained and desperate to guard not just my figure, but who I am—my very self. We must rise above these simple ideas of beauty or they will rule us. They will determine our fate and our relationships. If we do not rise above, we may choose on appearance ALONE. If we do not wake up, we may never engage others for fear they will notice that we are, well, “ugly.”
Who knows but that age has matured my face and made me more attractive. Who knows whether grey hair will not crown me well. This may not be the case; I make no declarative statements, only suppositions. But, could it be that there are many ways to be handsome, many possible beautifuls? It IS possible. It is possible that the world has skewed all our ideas of what is beautiful. It is possible that in believing these lies we have ourselves pressed beauty into the thimble of our imagination. It is possible that in believing the lies we have hesitated on more than one occasion because we feared we were not “pretty enough” or “handsome enough.” After all, beautiful people are supposed to be joined to beautiful people. At least that is the myth.
It is my observation that those with curly hair long to have straight hair and those with straight hair curl it. If you hear it nowhere else, I want to make sure to say, “You are worth more than that!” There is no “objective,” indisputable, measure for human beauty. The person who I find beautiful may turn no other head—and that is okay with me. In fact, that is great with me. My ugly duckling needs know only MY love. My beautiful swan needs know that I think she is beautiful. And ultimately, it is God’s love that makes us beautiful.
But the voices that speak “inadequate” are louder and more numerous than the voices that extol our worth. I know this. I hear them still. Physical attractiveness holds more relational currency than it should. This is true. No matter how careful we are, our sense of reward and punishment is continually pressed toward valuing what we are told is beautiful.
That which is physically attractive about each of us differs with each of us but exists within each of us. Nothing created by God is lacking SOME beauty. After all, a Van Gogh is a Van Gogh. Anything Rembrandt painted is worth millions. Collectors worldwide esteem all that came from da Vinci. And anything made by God is fearfully and wonderfully made. That includes you—beautiful.
The physical qualities are the soft brushstrokes of our lives, but they do not explain us. They describe us—but do not define us. They capture a moment, but only a moment. In the next moment we will have changed and grown, and what we become will not be known to those who simply browse or read press releases. Those who come only to window-shop will not notice our true worth. They may find us physically attractive but God knows we are more than that.
No one will know us through the physical facts alone, and we are foolish to take the opinion of a passerby (because that is what they are) over the one who made us and loves us.
We are more than all the qualities they can assess during a drive by. We are deep people with deep lives of joy and pain. We are real people with deep emotions connected to deep wounds and unexpected blessings. We are beautiful. We are all these things and so much more. Each of us has beauty. Each of us has gold beneath all we display. Our silver may have tarnished, but we are no less precious.
I am not trying to argue, though, that we should marry that person even though we consider them “ugly.” I am saying that perhaps some of those we consider “ugly” are not ugly at all. And, there are many “ugly” people who are married—some of them to “beautiful” people.
Hopefully, what you have to offer will be seen by the person whose preferred medium of exchange surpasses the constraints of this sin-marred world. Every successful marriage thrives because the Spirit triumphs, and not because of our own cleverness. If the person you marry is there because you match the world’s idea of beauty—beware—the world is fickle. Tomorrow there may be an entirely new standard of beauty.
Hudson Russell Davis is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor of theology at Saint Louis University.
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