This just went live on the main page at Beliefnet.com. In case you're
interested, I'll add some comments on the writey process at the end. For fun,
see if you can guess which one word was changed from this version, the
original, to what appears on the site.
The Case Against "Youth-anasia"
Greta Van Susteren took a look in the mirror not long ago and didn't like
what she saw. "God, how did I get to be 47?" she says she thought. So she had
cosmetic surgery to tighten up the skin around her eyes. "I just did it on a
whim," she told People magazine.
Leave aside the question of whether someone who whimsically has her face
permanently altered can be relied on for more sober judgment about, say, Al
Qaeda. The bottom line is that the deed seemed so out of character. Greta's
was one of the few really authentic female faces on television. Her face was
interesting because it was unattractive, and attractive because it was so
interesting. It was a startlingly real face in the world of artifice, a face
that could attract and pull you in.
This new stitched-up version is confusing. We need the news to be plain and
honest, but Greta's transformation reminds us that appearances can be
deceiving. "I was so disappointed," said one Greta fan.
Greta got to be 47 the way the rest of us do: one day at a time. As a French
proverb has it, "After the age of 40 everyone has the face they deserve." The
way we habitually use our faces to communicate, emote, or react washes it
with expressions that gradually leave their mark. Under the soft net of
wrinkles, a repeatedly happy or cranky or sorrowful face expresses itself
even in sleep. Greta's face was an original that she had created herself, by
using that face every day for 47 years.
Maybe there's something sacred about that–something that shouldn't be altered
by human cunning. Why does God give us faces at all? Why do we have this disk
up in the air, with messages running across it constantly like a Times Square
news ribbon? It's a strange thing, when you think about it. A face is a
collaboration between that unique birthday gift and the daily use we make of
it, and the end result tells honestly who we are.
A further mystery is that apparently God has a face. Not to press too
literally on supernatural realities, but there must be some reason why the
Hebrew scriptures refer so consistently, not just to God, but to the *face*
of God. He makes his face to shine upon us, we are told; God's face is
frequently described as radiant with light. On the Mount of Transfiguration
Jesus' face shown like the sun. When that light is withheld, we wither. "You
turn away your face and [all creatures] are dismayed, they die and return to
their dust," writes the Psalmist. The light of his face is life.
We have faces because God does–whatever that may turn out to mean--and we are
made in his image. We may not like the way our faces embody this reality, and
may particularly dislike the way they sag and crinkle over time. But every
step away from that honest self is a step away from God's image.
The third-century bishop, Cyprian of Carthage, wrote to those who exerted
themselves against their natural appearance, "Are you not afraid that your
Maker may not recognize you again when you come to his rewards?" Those who go
in for such extreme renovations, he wrote, may hear God say, "This is not my
work, nor is this our image. Your face is violently taken possession of by a
lie. You cannot see God, since your eyes are not those which God made."
It's ridiculous to think that an artificially tightened face–we could call it
"youthanized"–is more appealing than an older one. We can instantly think of
many older people whose faces we love, and their wrinkles are part of it; the
wrinkles tell the story of their lives. To see these faces suddenly stretched
and ironed would be startling, unpleasant, and profoundly unattractive.
Our faces have a better purpose than just being billboards of current
fashion. In some mysterious way they are meant, not just to be the image of
God, but to reflect his light, like the moon does the sun. Throughout
spiritual literature there are examples of this being literally true, from
Moses' glowing face after his time on Mt. Sinai, to St. Seraphim of Sarov in
the 19th century, who turned a dazzling face toward his startled friend
during a walk in the snowy woods.
"We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being
changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another," wrote St.
Paul. That's something worth desiring. Beauty that comes from gazing on the
face of God is more enduring, more compelling, than any surgeon's needlework.
Since there are a lot of future writers on this list, I sometimes add notes
about what the writing biz is like. In this case, I got an email from my Bnet
editor yesterday morning asking if I had any thoughts on Greta Van Susteren's
plastic surgery. I kind of groaned, because it sounds so frivolous to even
talk about it. Also, my preference is to avoid writing essays that are going
to be worthless in a week and a half. I have "delusions of significance," and
try to make everything I write worthy of storing away in a cardboard box in
the attic for a few generations. Somebody this week is writing the most
astute, witty, and insightful essay possible on Van Susteren's surgery, and
in about ten days it will still be totally pointless. I try to avoid those
But I had in fact been looking at the People mag cover while standing in line
at Walmart, and grumbling to myself about her saying she did it "on a whim."
So I told the editor I would. She asked for me to make "a pitch," which means
to send her back an email explaining roughly what I would say in my essay.
I'm really terrible at that--as a "brick-by-brick" type of writer, I don't
even know waht I want to say about something until I start writing. But I
brainstormed a stack of paragraphs and sent it over, and a couple of editors
wrote back with various suggestions, and after some back and forth they told
me, last night, to go ahead and write it.
That's what I did all this morning. It took about 5 hours. It was like
pulling teeth. There's a saying, true for some writers, "You can either talk
about it, or write it." Since I'd chattered it all out in the emails to my
editors, nothing seemed fresh any more. I couldn't think how to get the first
part of the essay (Greta), the part I'd been enjoying a good cranky snit
over, connected to the part the editors had requested: a spiritual dimension
to the topic. The more I researched (Scriptures, Church Fathers, esp Cyprian
of Carthage) the more fascinating that part became, but it was like dragging
a bag of wet sand over trying to get them connected.
I'm still glad I had a reason to do this research. I hadn't realized how much
there is about faces in the bible. People are always falling on their faces
in worship, or to honor a king, or to ask for mercy. Muslims and Orthodox
Christians still do this in worship, but I don't know if any other Christians
or Jews do. Seraphim, God, and people all hide their faces. People express
themselves by smearing their faces with ashes, or by washing and anointing
them. And the theme of God's face shining, and of worshippers reflecting that
glow, comes up several times. This made me look at people's faces totally
differently all day. Waiting in line at the Motor Vehicle Admin I could think
"That hard-faced old lady behind the counter, even her face was made to shine
with the glory of God."
I don't know if I made up "youthanized." It seems so obvious now, but I can't
remember hearing it before.
The one word that changed? I said "why do we have this disk up in the air?"
and they changed it to "oval." I still like "disk" better--it's more 3-D.
I hope that this never reaches Greta, because it would be an awfully heavy
thing to lay on somebody. And I think her decision, "a whim," was really more
offhand and innocent than something coming from a deep drive of vanity. But,
sadly, it's still just as permanent.