“It’s a bug bite, not a pimple,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, referring to the large red welt rising on her right cheek.
“What does it really matter?” my thirteen-year-old self replied. “It looks the same either way.”
When she looked offended and walked away, I realized she’d missed my point. I was trying to ask her a philosophical question: If you have to suffer an unsightly mark on your face, why is it comparatively better to have a bug bite as opposed to a pimple? Why did it make her feel better if people knew it wasn’t a pimple? It must be that in some subconscious way we’d come to believe that pimples are blemishes that go deeper than our skin.
Today, at age 26 (twice the age of the version of myself that asked that question and perhaps in possession of only half the wisdom), I had my very first facial. It was a surprisingly relaxing hour of waxing hair from my eyebrows and upper lip, rubbing bits of rhubarb, pumpkin enzyme, and birch wood on my face, and poking and prodding to extract blackheads and other “debris” from my follicles and pores. Perhaps the facial was so enjoyable because of the accompanying shoulder and hand massage or the foot warmer in the table where I was lying. But I think it was the feeling that I was being deeply cleansed.
I first got the idea that I “needed” a facial several months ago when I went to a salon to get my eyebrows waxed. As usual, I had gone longer in between waxes than the beauticians recommend, so I was already feeling slightly embarrassed about the untamed hair sprouting above my eyes. I lay down on the table, and the woman who would be doing the waxing started planning her attack.
“Would you like to get a facial today as well?” she asked.
“A facial. You should really think about getting one. It’ll help clear up your blemishes.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied, trying to make sure I didn’t sound offended at her helpful, if also slightly self-serving, suggestion.
As she started to apply the wax to my eyebrows, I wrote a little speech in my head. I wanted to explain to her that I had never struggled much with acne before, even as a teenager. It had only started to be a problem since I became a long-distance runner, having sweat and salt and dirt and leftover sticky energy gels coating my face during runs that lasted 3-4 hours, and then getting home and having about a million other priorities besides immediately washing my face (such as eating, drinking water, getting warm, or collapsing in a heap on the floor).
“If you knew the journey I’ve been on to get these blemishes, maybe you’d see them more deeply,” I wanted to say. “Maybe you’d realize that they aren’t ugly; they’re actually battle scars, some representing victory and others representing perseverance in the face of defeat.”
“Maybe they are ugly,” I amended in my mental discourse. “But they’re a side effect of so many beautiful things that far outweigh their ugliness.”
And then I started thinking about the people I cross paths with every day, some of whom behave in ways that seem ugly to me. Maybe I should cut them some slack, I mused while the woman continued to rip off strips of wax from my face and tried to coax me into salon small talk. Maybe I should recognize that everyone is a work in progress. Sometimes ugliness reveals itself on the journey toward beauty.
This idea was further underscored during my facial today. The blackhead extraction hurt a bit, my skin is currently red and raw, and my blemishes are more pronounced than when I went in. The esthetician warned me about all of this. “Your skin is going to need time to heal,” she said. “When it does, it’ll be so much smoother than it was before.”
In order to get my skin healthy, she had to dig deep below the surface and unearth the grime that has made its home there for months or even years. (“This blackhead was nearly a quarter of an inch long!” she exclaimed at one point.) The process was painful and made the ugly blemishes even more pronounced.
Sometimes this is the case in life as well. I hope I am becoming a more mature, compassionate, wise person – but then I act in such a way that I begin to think I haven’t made any progress. In fact, maybe I’ve even gotten worse.
I need to recognize that unearthing character blemishes is a painful process that will sometimes make the blemishes even more pronounced for a time. Rather than measure my progress like a strict schoolteacher with a wooden ruler, I need to grant myself grace and time to heal. I need the opportunity to dig beneath my blemishes instead of concealing them with pore-clogging cover-up every day. I truly believe that until I learn how to think this way about my own journey, I will always struggle to be compassionate and understanding of other people.
So here’s to 2014 – a year of extracting blackheads and applying soothing balms!