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Good Letters

mirror womanDriving in the car recently, my daughter pulled down the visor in front of her and opened the mirror. Her hair was in a side ponytail draped over her right shoulder. She wore a black and white plaid beret.

“I really like this hat and hair thing I have going on today.”

“Yes, very cute,” I said.

She’s twelve, the age of fashion daring; young enough to have some really crazy ideas of what might work, and unaffected enough to pull it off.

She looked and smiled at herself a couple times. The car is such a good place to primp. The natural light illuminates every stray hair, every irregular pore, the butter shade of your front teeth contrasting with the toffee shade of your incisors.

But stranded in a car with only passing cornfields and a forty-year-old mother for views, I feared she may become captive of her own reflection.

“I have pretty good skin,” she said. “No zits yet at all.”

Her genealogy doesn’t bode well for clear skin through adolescence. “Don’t get too attached,” I said.

In my confusion of duty as her mother/disciplinarian, guide into womanhood, mentor in faith, teacher of virtue, fashion consultant, and guardian of self-esteem, I never know how to handle these situations. Is it better to set the beauty bar low in case her skin trajectory goes the same way mine did, straight from zits to wrinkles (with quite a lot of overlap between the two)?

After all, beauty is not skin-deep. I should be preparing her to accept that her self-worth lies elsewhere.

Then again, it is an undeniable fact that her skin is currently flawless and enviable, and she is right to glory in the present moment. Why not drink deeply of this perfect hat, hair, and skin day, and shine on in the visor mirror until we reach our destination?

Mothers on the Internet always know the perfect things to say to their daughters, the perfect combination of empowerment, humility, truth, self-acceptance, and warm embraces. And the shadowy daughter silhouette frolicking in the sunset always receives her mother’s wisdom so gracefully.

It’s weird.

How can this relationship be anything but fraught? How can the mother ever know which singular phrase of all the thousands of words said in a lifetime will be the one that pings in her daughter’s mind? Because every daughter I’ve ever met holds such a phrase in memory, of the time (or times) her mother’s tongue went too far and left a wound.

And how can the daughter, with such intimate, first-hand experience of her mother’s fallen nature ever wholly perceive her mother’s loving intention? Because there are times when the daughter’s empowered notions are a real drag. Maybe such notions put her at risk of bodily harm, or perhaps more rarely and subtly, of spiritual harm. Does the mother then have a duty to disempower? And how does she disempower an isolated situation without disabling a lifetime?

Saints could fail this task.

“Do you think I should say mean things about myself?” my daughter asked. “People always say that you shouldn’t put yourself down, but if you say good things then they say you’re boastful.”

“No, you are right to say the truth,” I answered. Saying the truth about myself is something I am still learning to do.

A year or two ago, by the grace of God, I was finally liberated from the lifelong temptation to live the life I’d imagined for myself, and not the one I actually was.

The spiritual teacher, Jaques Philippe, describes this condition in his book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace (p. 42):

It concerns precisely the temptation to believe that, in the situation which is ours (Personal, family, etc.), we lack something essential and that because of this, our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually, is denied us.

…I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely. I feel underprivileged compared to others and I carry in me the constant nostalgia of another life, more privileged, where, finally, I could do things that are worthwhile.

Maintaining this nostalgia for a life I wasn’t living required the constant telling of untruths about myself and about the people around me. For instance: I’m not lovable. I’m not capable of love. I only love myself, and for that, I hate myself. The people around me are not lovable. If they would change, then I could change. And I can probably make them change if I am unpleasant enough to them.

The present moment was unbearable because I believed that I was unbearable—evil, selfish, wrong in everything, and incapable of behaving otherwise.

And I was naturally repulsed by the cultural movement to say the opposite—to accept the unfounded assertion that I’m beautiful and lovable—in spite of a lifetime of contradicting evidence.

I still find it, if not untruthful, then at least insincere and condescending to hold up examples of physical decay and mortality, and say, “Hear, all ye who have ears! Accept the new standard of beauty!”

We so want women to love and cherish themselves and be happy. We write banners and mantras praising infinite inner beauty that comes, from where? From beauty itself? From the universe? All we have to do is recognize it, absorb and declare it, and it’s ours? Forever?

And for the love of all that is holy, do not kill it in other people, you monster.

These notions perpetuate the very lie (but in a different package) that caused me to despise myself: the belief that the power to redeem myself as well as others is in my own hands.

All it requires is my constant recollection (something I cannot possibly accomplish) of beauty as pop culture currently defines it, while fixedly ignoring the reality that I live in a world and a body that are slowly but surely passing away.

I released this lie from my consciousness. I’m not going to speak it to my daughter.

The truth is this: My happiness lies only in the belief that beauty belongs to God. Love belongs to God. Good works belong to God. Redemption belongs to God. It’s his work if I radiate or create something of beauty. It’s his work when I recognize something as beautiful. It’s his work when I am able to recollect myself in his presence. His presence is now. His presence is good. His presence is regardless of me. His presence redeems the moment.

His presence gives dignity to my body, which has undeniably entered middle age and has begun its decline. His presence elevates my soul, which peaks and flourishes only in him and at his will. Maybe it sparks something physically beautiful in me; I don’t really know. Maybe it allows me to speak with charity to the people he’s put in my life; I can’t judge how they will receive my words, or even how I’ve spoken them.

But I can rejoice, give thanks and trust that God within me does not lie. And whatever fraught communication happens here in exile, through the silent work of his Holy Spirit, he can make good.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Elizabeth Duffy

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

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