Disfigured by cancer, one woman lives in hope and confidence.
I know why you stare. I notice when you gawk. I get the message if you turn away. I even understand the latent psychological reasons that explain your self-protective need to quickly identify that which is unusual, to instantly spot things that may indicate peril, and to swiftly react to people who are not “just like me.” I get why you sneak a peek to invade the privacy of one who is considered “different” from what you consider to be “normal.” I am aware of how you are affected when confronting the peculiar or the odd.
I am acquainted with your discomfort and your angst. In fact, it is the same alarm bell that we hear: “Danger!” We respond to the same mental mayday: “Somebody get me out of here!” You want to run away from me, and I want to escape from you. Instead, we simultaneously collect ourselves and pretend that all is well. When taken by surprise, we both struggle to maintain our composure. We do our best to be politically correct.
Your apprehension when standing in the immediate vicinity of a deformed person is palpable. I’m used to reactions like yours. I’ve been through it before: your startled double take, your nervous recovery. Please don’t feel bad. It’s nothing personal. I tell myself that it’s no big deal. It’s only the visual impact of my scars that alters our social interaction, nothing more. It’s only these scars that transform my identity, send out distress signals, create uneasiness, and stimulate mutual sentiments of suspicion between us.
That’s why I dread to see you approach and why I’m relieved when our encounter ends. Venturing out in public—exposed to glances and whispers—can be an exhausting challenge to my body, mind, and soul. Just the thought of walking out through my front door can be a wearisome exercise that exposes me to risk. But I go about my business—taking a chance on you—not reflecting on past hurtful experience, but hopefully optimistic, convincing myself—pretending, as it were—that I am on equal footing with everyone I will meet.
A mismatched set—myself and my appearance—courageously confront the world together. In spite of apprehension and fear, the two of us project a confident façade. Prayerfully, my petitions rise to my Savior who was, for a brief while, without beauty or attractiveness; my Jesus who was despised and rejected, sorrowful and familiar with grief. Inside my head, a soundtrack plays: “In the face of overwhelming anxiety, I must exercise bold faith.” It takes gut-wrenching self-control to place my trust in God’s wisdom and loving concern.
That’s how I prepare to meet you on the street and in the store. That’s how I cope with queasy forebodings: I apply faith to my face in much the same way that a woman of normal appearance might apply makeup in order to perfect her already pleasing countenance.
Over the years, I searched for rational explanations for the illnesses that plagued me since birth, especially for the devastating cancer that ravished my face, stole my youth, and crafted a private, isolated anguish out of my adult years. Periodically, predictably, I plumbed the depths of bitterness and despair. Imitating Job, eventually I cursed the day of my birth. Then, when rage subsided and anger did not help, I gave God’s love a tentative try. When the world furnished no defensible solutions for my misery, I immersed myself in religious faith. There I discovered my need for God.
I am no stranger to physical pain, rejection, and tears. These useful hardships remind me of the other 98 percent of a worldwide population who struggle every day, all day, without relief—most lacking the underpinning of a strong Christian faith. Because of my own deformity and the ongoing, unrelenting medical issues that go with it, I live united to and continually in mind of others who are also afflicted. When I add up the good things in my life, I appreciate how blessed I am to enjoy my daily bread: adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Unlike many who are handicapped, I am able to walk and talk and think clearly—and to communicate God’s praises in the midst of these temporary trials.
Praise God who gives me faith! And not just a tiny smidgen of faith either, but boatloads of belief! Tons of trust! God is my loyal, steady, dependable source of the miraculous faith defined by the writer of Hebrews as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). God’s stockpile of faith has proven to be all-sufficient for me—always ample—an inexhaustible, unwavering supply! God’s matchless gift is a life-affirming virtue intended to help me move the melancholy mountains that hem me in the deep, dark valley of sadness through which I still travel from time to time because of my scars.
When all is said and done, the highest purpose of my life is to glorify God. My aspiration is to coexist peacefully with what I now perceive as God’s gift of facial deformity. Jesus said of a certain man born blind, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). So, when I hurt, I do my best to praise God. Heeding Paul’s example in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, I make it a point to “give thanks in all circumstances”—no matter what.
I take comfort in knowing that I can cry out in distress and be heard by the One who made me, who loves me deeply, and who understands me completely. I am confident that he hears and answers in ways that are best for me. ” ‘Because [she] loves me,’ says the LORD, ‘I will rescue [her]; I will protect [her], for [she] acknowledges my name. [She] will call upon me, and I will answer [her]’ ” (Psalm 91:14,15). God’s Word is true: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). I know that he finds no defect in his precious child because of Jesus. Accepting this as true, I strive to be “always rejoicing,” even when sorrowful (2 Corinthians 6:10). And, most important, to mean it from the bottom of a thankful heart.
In the eyes of the world, I am damaged goods. I once heard someone remark, “Nobody wants her but Jesus.” Maybe that’s not such a bad deal after all. Some wonderful day, in the Lord’s own time, this perishable body will be set aside, and I will be raised with a perfect, glorified body, whole and unscarred. I have God’s Word on it! “The Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20,21).
Until then, a shattered life lived in a broken world continues to teach me that suffering increases perseverance, character, and hope—a hope that does not disappoint.
Marymichael Leon is a member at Risen Savior, Pooler, Georgia.
Author: Marymichael Leon
Volume 97, Number 7
Issue: July 2010