Monday, August 16, 2021

Anonymous Asks (158)

“Why did God make some people less attractive than others, and what can those of us who got the short end of the stick do about it?”

I told this story here back in 2016, but it is meaningful enough to me that I’ll tell it again. In my early twenties I spent a week helping out at a Christian camp — as did my tall, handsome cousin. It was a nice gesture on his part to come along, but I quickly found myself gritting my teeth every time he was around.

I’m almost ashamed to admit why. The previous summer when I had served at the same camp on my own, I had gotten a fair bit of attention from the girls working in the kitchen, something that hadn’t bothered me a bit. But anyone who has ever played the role of alpha in one situation or another knows the position of top dog is relative, not absolute. That summer I couldn’t help but notice that apart from the camp director’s wife, all female eyes in camp were riveted on my cousin.

My annoyance must have been written all over my face, though I didn’t say a word about my feelings to anyone. But I’ll always remember the camp director slipping up beside me while my cousin was holding court for a group of fawning admirers, and quietly saying to me, “Don’t resent him. He has temptations you and I will never face.”

Certain Small Benefits

That’s a long way to go to point out that there are certain small benefits to not being the most attractive person in any given group of Christians. But really, the most important lesson I took out of that experience was not to allow myself to wallow in bitterness or envy. Not only are they displeasing to God, they also tend to make you truly unlikable. And they don’t go unnoticed.

Personally, I don’t think God chooses a specific genetic package for every person in the world; that’s very much on your mother and father, as you can probably tell any time you look across the kitchen table — though I suppose it’s cold comfort to shift the blame for how we look from God to poor old mom and dad, who couldn’t control which of their built-in presets they passed on to their children any more than anyone else.

Now, being beyond time and space himself, God certainly could construct you from the ground up according to his own unique design if he wished, but if that is indeed the way of things, I don’t believe it can be stringently proved even by resorting to the language of the Psalmist. Moreover, God’s promise not to test us beyond our capacity to endure surely holds true in the case of despair, doesn’t it? Even if the Lord could be demonstrated to have made me ugly by his sovereign choice, he has also fully enabled me to cope with that reality and to find ways to enjoy life and glorify him despite it.

I’m not saying the issue is easy to come to grips with, or that every Christian does it with the same speed or grace, or to the same degree of maturity. I’m simply saying it’s the promise of God, and God is faithful.

Living With What God Has Allowed

Let us agree, then, that God allows each of us to come into the world looking the way we do, some of us with health and appearance issues we wish we didn’t have.

And yet ... what kind of world would it be if God simply overruled any aesthetically sub-standard combination of X and Y chromosomes in the womb? I’m not sure the competition that scenario would produce would improve on the status quo. I suspect popular culture would simply begin to focus on arbitrary and infinitesimal differences in coloration or bone structure to generate a new and equally frustrating sort of sexual-market hierarchy in which you and I would still fall short of the perceived ideal in some way.

So, let’s see if we can get past the temptation to blame God, our parents or anyone else for the hand we have been dealt at birth, not least because bitterness and envy produce nothing useful. I like the second part of this question, and I want to concentrate on that for a bit, because it is a much more positive formulation: What can we do about physical unattractiveness? How can we offset our less-desirable features?

Let me make a few practical suggestions that do not involve the usual clich├ęs about how even attractive people are insecure and obsess about their flaws (some of them don’t), or how the top tier of the socio-sexual marketplace is a tough place to reside (mostly it isn’t), or how we’ll all be old and ugly one day (small cheer, and even so, you can take it to the bank that some of us will definitely be older and uglier than others).

Making the Best of It

  • Be realistic about what you’re working with. Certain clothes simply don’t look right on the wrong type of physique. Following fashion trends has a fair bit of appeal to most of us, but those same clothes that look amazing on the beautiful people often draw unflattering comparisons when a person with a body type for which they were not designed attempts to pull off the same look. Develop your own personal style that is functional, comfortable and un-flashy. The less you obsess about how you look, the more ease you will have in public, and the more approachable you will become.
  • Change the things you can. Some aspects of our appearance are pretty much fixed. Weight and fitness, however, are less a matter of genetics and more a matter of lifestyle choices, including diet, exercise and sleep habits. Take care of yourself, work on being healthy and energetic, and make the best of the package you have. It may not be perfect, but letting yourself go sure won’t make you feel any better.
  • Look out, not in. Focusing on the flaws we perceive in ourselves leads nowhere good. Start looking for ways to make other people’s lives better. Dependable, competent people of good will are in short supply in this world. It’s nice to be appreciated for your looks, but it is better to be known for your loyalty, honesty, trustworthy character, hard work and generosity.
  • Spread the love around. Be indiscriminate in loving the world. Too much attention on one person or another can lead to disappointment or make you look obsessive. The object is not to win the affections of specific people you are attracted to — there is never any guarantee of that — but to become the sort of person who treats others the way you wish they would treat you, whether or not that generates a favorable response from everyone. Good character acts like a magnet: it attracts other people of good character and repels the sort of people you are better off not getting too close to.
  • Become an interesting and useful person. The most interesting person in the world is the person who is most interested in you. Learn to listen to other people’s problems. Don’t talk about your own unless you are asked, and keep it short and positive when you do. Don’t be vapid. Get familiar with the word of God so you can have something useful to contribute when you are asked, and so that your own life becomes a model of self-control, maturity and good works. Learn to pitch in and solve problems others wouldn’t tackle.
  • Value in others what you wish they would value about you. It may not be necessary to point this one out. You would think the sort of person who is concentrating on developing their character by helping others and trying to please God should really be inclined to find those same qualities attractive in others. And yet I still run into the occasional young man or woman who has all kinds of good things going for them, but still ends up throwing themselves at somebody who has zero desirable features other than the obvious physical ones. Those things do not last, but the misery that comes from pairing up with a spiritual dud in pretty packaging can last a lifetime.
  • Cultivate contentment. Bitterness is a choice. It is something you have to allow to take root. It can be rejected, and the Christian should make every effort to do so. “Godliness with contentment is great gain”, wrote the apostle Paul. The context is dealing with envy, among other things. False teachers in Ephesus were promoting a greedy and acquisitive spirit, encouraging the believers to pursue things God had not given them and did not intend for them. The point? Don’t be like that. Count the blessings you have, not the ones you wish you had.

Things We Can’t Change

There are things about myself that I simply can’t change. Obsessing over them will not help me lead a happier or more fulfilling life. While there is no guarantee that godliness, good cheer, hard work, fidelity and devotion to the Lord will find you the life partner of your dreams, I know a great many Christians whose physical appearance ... how can I put this delicately? ... the world would not look at twice, yet they are happily married, have a houseful of kids and spend their lives engaged in modeling Christ to needy communities.

And one of the many things the Lord’s life on this planet teaches us is that you don’t have to be an aesthetic masterpiece to turn the world upside down. It may even get in your way.

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