The truth is, none of us see ourselves clearly.
And what my little one sees most clearly when she looks in the mirror are all the ways she deems herself deficient. Of course, it’s not how her daddy or I see her. It’s not how her sister or her friends or her teachers or her grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins see her. But when she looks herself square in the eyes, there’s often a quiet whisper overpowering all those other voices and all she can hear is roaring accusations… You’re not enough because… You’re too much this and not enough that and if only this were different, then you’d be acceptable…
I know this, of course, because the mirror sometimes exerts the same cruel charm over me.
When we look at her, we see her wholeness. We see the truth of who she is. And this is what we speak over her: beautiful, perfect, delightful and extraordinary, beloved daughter. But if I listen to my own life, I know deep down it has never mattered what other people think or say. Those voices can’t cover up my own, and so it stands to reason we aren’t louder than her inner critic either.
No matter what others may say, it’s the whisper-roar of our own self-accuser that usually speaks loudest in our own hearts. And no one — no mother or father or lover or friend — can quiet down that voice for another. We can’t talk someone out of their feelings and no one can talk us out of ours. The only way to change what that whisper roars is through a personal journey; a soul recalibration that fundamentally shifts our core understanding of our identity, belonging and worth.
This recalibration isn’t a one-time occurrence, of course. This isn’t a once-and-done lesson. I’m still having to learn it myself, 38 years into my life journey, and it’s almost always experiential rather than explained. It isn’t always easy to see the change in my own life, but as a mama, sometimes I get a front-row seat to God-as-mender in the lives of my children. I can see him gently unsnarling the tangled knots of lies and accusations and distorted thinking that have already started to bind them up, replacing them with singular lead lines, strong and sturdy anchors connecting them straight to his heart.
A few weeks ago, Alea was invited to participate in a local therapeutic riding program with a new non-profit organization here in Midland called Starlight Therapeutic Riding Center. We had a whole host of reasons we thought she might be a good candidate for the program, but central to them all was a desire for her to grow in confidence and self-assurance. We wanted for her to see herself more clearly… and it didn’t hurt that horses were involved.
On her first day, she was invited to pick “her horse.” The therapists took her to a pasture where she met Comanche and Nimbus and Dudley and a few other calm and steady creatures standing regally in the warm sun. Each of them had their faces covered with fly guards, but Alea evaluated the merits of each based on her own unknowable standards and decisively picked “the most beautiful horse.” Nimbus.
Together with her therapist, she led the moonlight-colored horse into the barn to begin a grooming lesson. I sat off to the side and listened to her chatter with delight as they discussed brushing and bathing and primping and preening. A horse beauty shop… Alea was living her dream and she squealed and giggled and pranced her way through the session. Eventually they worked their way around to Nimbus’ head and the therapist reached up to unhook the fly guard. As the guard came down, my own went up. I saw Nimbus’ face before Alea did, and my heart sunk. I stood up, getting ready to intervene.
You see, Nimbus had only one eye.
I knew what was coming next. I’ve heard the cruel words spew from Alea’s mouth before when she encounters a picture or a video of someone or some creature who is different than what she deems “normal” — someone or some thing who falls short of her standard of beauty. I’ve heard the shocking accusations that spill out and call into question the “imperfect one’s” worth and dignity and value. The first time it happened, I was caught completely off guard. How could such a small person be capable of such large cruelty? But that day I felt God speak to my heart in a way that echoes in moments like this: It’s how she sees herself. And suddenly I can hear Alea’s inner dialogue with a heartbreaking clarity. She sees herself as one of those “imperfect ones,” and whatever cruelty she exacts on others has first been tested and honed and perfected on herself.
And so I stood, ready to step in and intervene as she encountered this beautiful horse’s imperfections for the first time. She’s not going to see him clearly, I thought, sickened and saddened by what I knew was coming next.
“What is WRONG with him? He looks so weird. That’s gross!” Alea squealed, jumping backwards in feigned shock and horror. I found myself relieved that he was, after all, only a horse and wouldn’t be wounded by her insensitivity. I fought to push down my temptation to begin apologizing and explaining to the other adults gathered around that this isn’t the kind of language I thought was acceptable; that I was always trying to get her to be kinder – first to herself and of course to others, equine or not. But instead of saying anything, I held back and held my breath as I waited for the therapist to respond.
She didn’t miss a beat. She crouched down to Alea’s level and looked at her with such tenderness. “Nimbus had a problem with his eye, so the vet took it out so it wouldn’t hurt him anymore. He’s ok. It doesn’t hurt and it’s all healed, and he is such a good horse. He’s beautiful and strong and he doesn’t need two eyes to be a good horse. I think he’s perfect.”
She of course had to know about Alea; that she has her own physical difference that leaves her feeling a bit like the one-eyed horse. I believe in that moment, she intuitively knew that Alea’s outburst about the horse was really a thinly veiled exposition on her feelings about herself. Alea took in the therapist’s explanation quietly and didn’t say much in return. The therapist moved through the moment naturally, leading Alea to continue on with the grooming and even encouraging her to draw nearer to the part of Nimbus that she found most distasteful.
On the ride home, I decided I wasn’t ready to discuss the moment. I didn’t know what else to say. I wanted to connect the dots for Alea; to explicitly draw a line between her own worthiness and the worthiness of “her horse” Nimbus. But I could find no clear words to take us down that path, so I remained quiet. The next morning I was getting ready for work and Alea came into my bathroom and sat on my counter. We both stared into the mirror and she began talking as I brushed on mascara and combed my hair.
“You know mom, my horse Nimbus is the most beautiful horse in the world. He’s strong and he’s kind and he has only one eye. But that doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need two eyes. He’s still a good horse.”
With that, she looked directly at the mirror, staring at herself square in the eyes and smiling widely at her reflection. She hopped down and scampered off, neighing as she went and seeing herself just a bit more clearly thanks to Nimbus, the one-eyed horse.
And I breathed a prayer of gratitude — for the fact that Alea chose Nimbus out of all the other horses; for the intuitive therapist who handled the moment with such grace; for the fledgling equine therapy program that offers my little one the opportunity to connect — and for the way all these things worked together in mysterious ways to lead my little girl to a sturdier and stronger place, anchored straight to the heart of God.