Looking at photo of a disfigured woman

I am standing in the kitchen, opening the mail, and come to an envelope from an organization pleading for donations. I slide the letter out and immediately, I am arrested at the picture beside the words.

The woman’s face is disfigured. Horrible third degree burns cover her face. One eye is clouded and discolored. Her smile, though, is amazing: amazing for the fact that she can smile—she survived something horrible, her lips can form a smile, her teeth are intact—and amazing because she is smiling. She’s smiling despite going through hell. (Would I?)

I realize that I’ve recoiled and looked away because she’s hard to look at, and I feel ashamed for even thinking this. She’s another woman, not a creature from a horror movie.

Why did I look away?

But she doesn’t look normal.

But why does that matter? Have I bought into my society’s expectations of “normal” that much? Am I conditioned to look only at beautiful or pleasant or normal images? What does this say about me?

That you’re normal.

I know I always say I want to be normal, but if this is normal, then it’s overrated and shallow.

All of this is running in my head. I’m supposed to be cooking dinner or waiting for the smoke detector to tell me that dinner’s done or something, but I’m wondering what to do with the letter. I usually leave all the mail on the counter for my husband to read, but I sense that I can’t leave this letter there. What if our four-year-old daughter sees it?

I don’t want to explain her appearance, though the story is simple enough. She lives in Indonesia. During an attack on Christians in her village, this lady was fleeing when she tripped over a gasoline lantern. It set fire to her face. She was fortunate to survive. The non-profit organization Voice of the Martyrs helps her and her children.

The letter talks about her suffering. As you can imagine, she has lots of physical suffering. But there’s emotional pain, too. Each gasp or grimace brings pain to her heart. Sometimes people tell her children that she is a monster.

I read these words and remember my gut reaction: recoiling, averting my gaze because it’s too hard to meet her eyes, even in a photo. Conflicting emotions rise in me. Indignation that people treat her badly (Can’t they see her beautiful smile?) Shame that I reacted just like them. (Why did I gasp?)

I’m confronted by a paradox.

I want to be the person who responds with compassion.
Who doesn’t flinch at what she sees.
Who sees people as people, and not in terms of beautiful or ugly, normal or abnormal.
Who sees this woman and embraces her, the way I would like to be in those circumstances.

Yet I don’t. I’m accustomed to being surrounded by external beauty and have accepted it as my birthright to be surrounded by it. So I cringe at images or people or things that don’t fit. And instead of first reaching out in compassion, I respond by turning away.

It’s a reflex. Normal. But I don’t want to be like that.

I take a deep breath, and a second look. I see the woman with the beautiful, warm smile, her smile evidence of a hard-won joy. And I know that if I had stayed turned away, stayed caught in that initial response of horror, I would have missed this beauty.

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3 thoughts on “Looking at photo of a disfigured woman

  1. thank you for this, it is so beautiful. i saw a woman today in a store, a teller, whose hands were disfigured with scars running all over them. and i looked up at her face which was covered with scars as well. it was utterly horrifying to me and i realized to my shame that i was astonished by it. you are so right that we surround ourselves with “beauty” and cannot face anything that is not. wow. i see the ugliness in my own heart. again, thank you.

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