Tomorrow, my daughter and I will appear on the TODAY Show.
A friend of my son asked my wife, with the kind of skepticism only a fourth-grader can muster, “Why do they want Mr. Flanagan on the show?” My wife responded, somewhat skeptically herself, “I guess they think he has more to say.” The young lady just laughed, rolled her eyes, and returned to her play.
Kids will keep you humble.
But I do have a little more to say, because the letter to my daughter wasn’t complete. Near the end of the letter, I wrote about the last question I ask her every night: “Where are you the most beautiful?” And her answer: “On the inside.”
Why do I use the word most?
Because the last question of the night is always preceded by another question: “Are you beautiful on the outside?” And her answer: “Yes.”
Yes, I’m beautiful on the outside and, at the same time, I can affirm I’m most beautiful on the inside.
Can We Agree?
We have to ask both questions of our girls and, frankly, of ourselves. Without both questions, we end up thinking dualistically about beauty, and we end up in unfruitful debates about whether makeup is good or bad, or whether women who wear makeup are really strong or actually insecure. We end up picking sides and fighting it out.
But this is not an either-or debate.
It’s a both-and conversation. And we need to treat it as such, because we need all women together on this one. In fact, if we hope to stand strong against the messages about beauty and worth bombarding us, we need all women and all men together on this one.
Can we stop debating whether cosmetics are good or bad and instead simply agree they will never fully and forever deliver anyone into a sense of beauty and worth?
Can we agree that no fleeting, transient physical attribute or accessory will ever do so?
Can we agree no solid sense of identity will ever come from a focus on what’s happening on the surface of us, even if the surface is very good and very beautiful?
Can we agree that if my daughter tells me she doesn’t like the shape of her body, I won’t try to assuage her shame with compliments about other physical attributes, because then I’m just keeping the focus on her body, and her body will never be an enduring source of her peace?
Finding the Magic Inside
When I was in high school in the mid-90s, “magic eye pictures” went viral in the old fashioned way—everyone bought a book of them and stuck it in their bathroom reading basket. Magic eye pictures had two levels of graphics. The surface level was a random collection of beautiful shapes in a range of colors and patterns. But beneath this beautiful layer, there was another layer—a layer containing an organized, coherent, meaningful image.
If you stared at the surface of the picture, you saw only the random, chaotic beauty. But if you let the surface go out of focus, if you stared past the surface—deeply into the picture—the three-dimensional image depicted beneath the surface would jump out at you.
These were moments of true epiphany.
And we human beings are like those magic eye pictures.
We are physically magnificent creatures. Our surface layer is often a beauty to behold, full of brilliant color and vibrancy. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s something to be celebrated. But if we allow our gaze to rest there, if we look only at the surface of ourselves, we will feel like the surface of those pictures—a random collection of colors and patterns, with no real meaning or purpose.
But if we can avoid getting caught up in the details and distractions of our surface layer, if we can focus past it and gaze deeply into ourselves—and into others—an epiphany awaits us.
We will discover an image arising out of the chaos.
We will see the shape of who we are and it will bring with it a sense of coherence and purpose and meaning.
We will become three-dimensional creatures, alive in the world, jumping off the page of life, prepared to be ourselves in a world desperately in need of people who simply know who they are.
When we gaze deeply, we discover a self-image that cannot be touched by time or tarnished by age.
Several weeks ago, after I had asked my daughter our two questions and was walking out of her room, I heard her voice in the darkness. I returned to her, and with her voice full of curiosity, she asked, “Why is inside most beautiful, Daddy?” I responded with the first thought that came to mind.
“Because it’s a forever beauty.”
Her quizzical look dissolved into a smile and she laughed, saying, “Oh, yeah, I forgot.” As if she already knew it. As if it had slipped her mind. And I believe that might actually be true. I think as children we may be more fully, purely aware of where our real worth and value and beauty lie. As we grow up, we simply forget.
Which is why it’s good to remind ourselves. Over and over again. Are we beautiful on the outside? Absolutely. But where are we the most beautiful?
On the inside.
We need true companions, now more than ever. Take all of your relationships to the next level with Kelly’s new book and study guide.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.