My daughter Catherine, who’s in 9th grade, wrote this as part of an essay on self-image, self-esteem. As she was reading the essay out loud to me to see what I thought, when she got to that line I said: “Yes! Can I post that?”
Her points were all spot on. In my words: To develop a self-image properly, you first have to know the blueprint for your dignity. Know who and whose you are. Only then can you look in the mirror of self-knowledge and judge yourself aright. If you ground your self-worth and self-image in your looks or personality, your intelligence or your wealth or the opinion of others, you are building a house of cards. “God’s image in us means His beauty is our beauty.”
Her reflections made me think of a story I had posted here previously in 2013.
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When I lived in Maryland, I met a woman who suffered from bulimia and self-harming (cutting). She worked as a volunteer at the hospice I served at and I got to know her and her husband quite well. She gave me permission to share her story for the high school retreats I would give back then, so I will assume that permission remains.
Her arms were covered with scars above her wrist up to her elbow. Before meeting her, I had never known anyone who had suffered from those disorders. She shared with me the story of her childhood. She grew up tangled in a web of abusive family relationships, caught in cycles of guilt and shame. She was an only child. Her father would frequently physically abuse her mother when he drank too much, and then would blame the daughter for his abusive behavior, saying the daughter’s birth had driven a wedge between him and his wife. The mother, who lived in survival mode, would never stand up for her daughter against the father’s accusations. So she grew up feeling worse than worthless. She believed she was a curse.
When I met her she was on the far side of recovery. She had been through years of counseling, married a remarkable man and discovered faith in Christ as an Evangelical Christian. She was very honest with me about the fact that the scars on her body were really external manifestations of the deeper scars on her soul. For her, cutting relieved her emotional pain, even if only briefly. Though she had made great strides past those dark years of her life when I met her, she said she still struggled mightily with her inner demons. But, she said, the good that had come into her life in early adulthood opened up something genuinely new. She now had hope.
She told me about her experience of conversion. She was invited by a co-worker to a prayer meeting at a Pentecostal church. When the people in the prayer group discovered she was a newcomer, they immediately encouraged her to put her trust in Christ and give her life over to God. Although she was resistant at first, feeling a bit “freaked out” by their forcefulness, she eventually agreed. She said she prayed inside before they prayed over her, “God, if you’re real, help me out.” As they prayed over her, inviting her to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior, she felt an intense rush of energy go through her body. It was like “pure love, something I had never ever experienced before. No judgment, no blame, no shame. Total acceptance.” She cried copious tears. While driving home alone afterward, she pulled off the road as she was overcome with even more intense emotions. Things she’d never felt before. She said she prayed “from the heart” in her car that night for the first time in her life, and as she poured her heart out to God she heard a strong yet gentle voice say, “You are my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”
Her father had never once said that to her. Nor had her mother, who always seemed to resent her. No one. She said when she heard those words, “I felt like — there’s no better word for it — a princess.” And suddenly everything else in life seemed to pale in comparison to that love. Everything just fell into place. All her priorities just seemed to rearrange themselves. “That’s the moment I realized that harming myself, as I had been, was just buying into the filthy lie I’d been fed all my life. You’re worthless, a burden. By showing me He was my Father, God told me I was worthy of His love. God had saved me from my sins of self-harm and from the sins of everyone else in my life who had fed into that destructive lie. And let me say that if I hadn’t met Jesus before I met my husband, I probably would’ve married an abusive man who just reinforced my self-hatred. That’s why I say that Jesus is my first love. And when I have children, God willing, I won’t have to pass on the hurt to another generation.”
Catholics must evangelize the world boldly so others will have the opportunity to meet Christ, the Only Friend of Man, who alone can save us from our despair. Pope Benedict:
There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.