By Jenna Ebener
The other day I was reflecting on what our society deems to be beautiful. As I looked at the picture of a past student who had died, I knew I was looking at true beauty. Society often portrays beauty as things such as symmetrical facial features and body parts, a certain body shape and designer clothes. People with any sort of physical disability or “flaw” do not seem to fit those criteria.
Most of the students I work with have a characteristic that often causes people to do a double take. Our students may have tubes in their noses or bellies, a tracheotomy tube in their throats, curved spines, shriveled limbs or asymmetrical facial features. Yet, I look at them and my heart absolutely melts. I do not see their physical “flaws” as something to recoil at but rather a sign of their innate worth as a beloved child of God. Their goodness shines through so strongly without them even trying.
While it can make us feel good to dress up and look good, I think it is so easy for our society to get wrapped up in the physical appearance of others, and we do it to ourselves. I think my students are a great reminder that if you are being yourself, if you are truly being authentic, then your beauty is going to make itself apparent no matter what you do or how you look.
I think it is actually easier for my students to be authentic because they have so little control over how they look. They cannot change who they are; instead, they ignore societal pressure to fit in and are themselves. They laugh, smile and love. They cry and throw tantrums. They shut down. They show me what they are feeling in the moment and that opens the door to connection.
I wonder what would happen if we all let our flaws show, whether it is a deformity, signs of our age or our natural look. What would it take to focus on our beauty within rather than externally? As I looked at the picture of that beloved student, with his features and hairstyle that many people would call anything but beautiful, I knew I was looking at the image of God. In that moment, I had the image of me coming face to face with God one day. I pictured what God might look like to me. While all of society’s definitions of beauty flashed through my mind, I knew those images were not who God is to me. To me, God is those incredibly beautiful students and I will come face to face with them in heaven.
What does beauty look like to you? What types of people capture your heart and show you the purity and goodness of humanity? Let their light fill you up so you, too, can shine for others. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
(Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavior disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)