I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrases I hear and perhaps have even said. It could just be because that’s where my attention is lately, but they seem to be all over the place. The other day, when I was exploring the area in search of a new coffee shop, “It’s what’s inside that counts” appeared exuberantly on the side of a white truck. Next to this seemingly encouraging phrase was a picture of a child with Down Syndrome. I’ve always been bothered by this phrase, but this time, it struck me as particularly inappropriate. So of course, I had to say something.
As a teenager, I struggled with acne. Like any girl, I also struggled with body hatred and poor self image. I got made fun of for having long legs (I had reached my full height – well over average – by 7th grade) and big eyes (exacerbated by my much-needed glasses), two features my mother assured me were actually desirable and considered beautiful. My mother also would regularly say some version of, “Don’t listen to them, it’s the beauty on the inside that matters.” Aside from the fact that I didn’t feel very beautiful on the inside, either – I was petty, jealous, depressed – I actually *wanted* to beautiful on the outside, too. I felt like my mother was talking past my heart when she directed me to “what’s inside,” like she didn’t see the real problem.
Now, I want t be careful here: I’m not advocating a focus on physical beauty. Lord knows, that’s caused intractable damage to way too many people, particularly women. But to say that it’s only what’s inside that matters does deep damage to our bodies as well. It relies on the divorce of the material/physical/ visible stuff of life from the spiritual/invisible stuff, the stuff “inside.” But we are souls/spirits AND bodies. Our bodies matter, too, though not for ways this culture has led us to believe. Our bodies are not primarily to be manipulated as vehicles of affirmation, attention-garnering or showing off. Nor are they an impediment to “real” life. They are not to be dominated, poked, prodded and primped into submission as if they are inferior to our minds, spirits and hearts. Bodies are gifts from God, painful as they can be, as prone to injury and accident as they are. We connect with each other and experience the whirlwind of songs, colors, smells, tastes and textures that is our world with our bodies. Our bodies, through pain, fatigue and aging, remind us of our limits, that we can and must rest, that we can’t do it all.
I’m not saying that disability is categorically a good thing, or that those with disabilities should simply bear up under whatever “God has inflicted upon them” in the way of physical or mental limitation, if God is even the cause of such suffering. But when I saw that picture of a beautiful child with Down Syndrome next to the quote, “it’s what’s inside that counts,” I couldn’t help but grieve. What that essentially does to the child is divorce her from her own body and point to her condition as the problem instead of our culture’s concept of disability. The common understanding of disability is that it must – and can – be overcome as much as possible with technology, locating “the problem” on the individual, particularly the individual’s source of impairment (their body or their brain) instead of the isolation and judgment from the able-bodied community.
But we have a lot to learn from people with disabilities (physical as well as mental/emotional). Nancy Eiesland, in her book The Disabled God, asks that persons with disabilities be allowed to speak for themselves. She writes that we are all “temporarily abled” because we all, by virtue of being human, are limited, at the very least in that we all eventually die. Not only are we limited by the great equalizer (death), but because we don’t have the power either to begin our own existence or to erase it from history completely. We cannot will ourselves into existence – one must already exist to have a will. And, once we have lived, we can never change the fact that we have existed. To say that disability is a gift is not to objectify those with disabilities but to show us, including the able-bodied, our utter dependence on God’s will for our own being and God’s mercy and grace for the consequences (better or worse) of our having lived.
We are to care for our bodies joyfully rather than anxiously, then, because they are gifts from God. They are both reminders of our finite-ness, our created-ness before our Maker and amazing works of art from the hand of that Great Creator. The parts that work are celebrations of the resurrected bodies we know through Jesus we will have in the remade world. Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection – He is the archetype of what it means to be human. He was raised in the body; we, too, will be raised in the body. The parts of our bodies that do not work well (which are eventually all parts while we are still subject to decay on this side of the Second Coming) are a result of sin, fallenness and brokenness, not the fact of having a body. What God defeated in raising Christ from the dead was not the body but death in all its forms. Yes, God does not see as mortals see, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). So yes, “it’s what inside that counts.” But God’s physical creation – our bodies – matter deeply to God as well. When God created humanity, male and female, in God’s own image, the story goes that God crafted them out of clay and bone (flesh and blood), respectively. The point is that God made our bodies out of physical stuff and then called it “very good.” So, it’s what’s outside that matters, too.