Sophrosyne

Beyonce is the one who said it best.

“Pretty hurts, shine the light on whatever’s worse. Perfection is the disease of a nation. Pretty hurts, shine the light on whatever’s worse. Tryna fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see. It’s the soul that needs the surgery.”

When I was a Confirmation Guide I hosted a girl’s night where me and about 10 preteens discussed life as an adolescent girl and the upcoming (and current) pressures inflicted upon them and how that relates to their faith. I of course, referenced this song and even showed them the music video (pretty brilliant if you ever wanna take a look).

Though I’m the first to admit that Queen B isn’t the same kind of role model as say Eleanor Roosevelt or Margret Thatcher, I’ve always loved what she’s getting at.

To find that one word to summarize Beyonce’s song, I consulted Google and the group of people known for creating words. The ancient Greeks. And I was right to do so, for I found that Plato himself declared this soul-surgery-self-actualization idea as sophrosyne.

Still, there is another term that is synonymous to this idea of looking to improve the self–Lent.

Though sophrosyne is more about the end product (in a secular way) and Lent is more about the continual spiritual process–the two are still related. And in following that notion that “pretty hurts me,” I thought to give up make-up for Lent.

I’m not the type who necessarily wears a lot of make-up. In fact, compared to some, I barely wear any at all. Regardless, it’s become a crutch and an identity to my vanity that I cannot distinguish. In the depths of my soul I’m told that I’m only attractive, worth-while, or noticeable when I’m wearing make-up (yes my head knows it’s fallacy, but my heart has a harder time accepting that).

And you can understand that train of thought, can’t you?

Consider all of the compliments ever received since tweenhood (when one’s sexuality actually becomes apparent to humanity)–all within the realms of a filtered face. The flirtations, the approval, have aligned with that “pretty” face.

Bruno Mars may sing songs about how “You’re amazing just the way you are,” but the media, movies, TV, general public, and powerful ones repeatedly say otherwise. With all that noise, it’s hard to remember it’s my soul that needs the surgery. Instead, all I know is the pain of beauty is one I have to keep.

Now, I got this idea to give up make-up for Lent from a high school friend of mine. I thought it was a brilliant idea. How feminist, how fitting, how inspiring! For the reasons just stated, this is something I undoubtedly supported and appreciated.

My goodness, wouldn’t I come across as noble, humble, meek and pure? What a good Christian I would be! I told my roommates all about my plans and beamed as they nodded approvingly saying, “That’s a great idea!” And it was.

Yes, people would point me out to their friends and say, “That’s Annie. She has such a heart of integrity and substance. She gave up make-up for Lent.”

So before the congregation of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I piously, courageously, and stirringly declared to God that I would fast from make-up.

That lasted a day.

That Thursday after Ash Wednesday I kept my promise and went about my day with fresh-face. To myself I looked a little tired, (did I always have such circles under my eyes?!) but content and was pleasantly surprised to find people didn’t gasp and turn away as I passed, nor did mirrors break upon my reflection.

It was on the second day that I caved.

Which was odd, because initially I had thought perhaps the very first day of fasting would be the most challenging–the biggest change I’d have to overcome. But no, it was the second. The second time I looked at myself and saw only inadequacy. The second time a face of tired “humility” gazed back.

I went to class that Friday, but when I returned home for a brief lunch–I inwardly snapped. I kept re-arranging my hair, poking at my skin, hoping that in some cosmic moment I’d settle to be fully happy with what I saw.

But I wasn’t. I wasn’t happy at all. It was too hard, I couldn’t do it.

Not without guilt, I took out my make-up bag and carefully fulfilled my regular routine. Though I felt better–I mostly felt weak, ashamed, and cowardly.

It was before the mirror that I saw how prideful my sacrifice was. How prideful, and how inept. This was not sophrosyne at all! This was me trying to prove something, to myself, my family, my friends–and above all, to God.

God, don’t you see what a good disciple I am? God, can’t you see what I’ve done for you? I’m fighting one of my greatest vices. Do you see me? Do you see me doing it? What a sacrifice, what a Christian, what a girl.

And so in my quest to vanquish my vanity, instead it only further vanquished me.

The Bible warns against hypocrisy and arrogance, warns against it desperately. “..The weak shall be exalted, and the exalted shall be made weak.”

In concurrence with Jesus’ words, C.S. Lewis describes hubris and vanity as the most dangerous of sins. The essential sin, the one that leads to all the rest. Lewis writes, “We must not try to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.”

I had missed the whole point. Missed it miserably. My spirit wasn’t in Lent, it wasn’t in sanction with God.

Curiously enough, it was on that Friday afternoon when I was applying the mascara that I actually fell into the correct state of Lent. One of meekness, shame, and guilt. A heart of repentance beseeching forgiveness.

I’m still fighting my vanity. But mostly, I’m fighting letting God take it away.

When that happens, there’s little else to do but pray, reflect, and give up gum instead. 

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