It was one of those church concerts you so often just stumble upon in European cathedrals. A visiting Welsh girls’ choir was performing, and I nipped in and grabbed a pew just as the choristers filed in. They arranged themselves on the sanctuary steps and very shortly a divine sound echoed into the cavernous reaches of the church.
As an old choir girl, myself, I was interested to see how some of the choristers employed techniques for improving resonance and maintaining pitch (including opening their mouths widely to let the sound out, and smiling to prevent the notes from falling flat) – but, in spite of the general professionalism of the group, a few girls looked as if they just weren’t trying.
One girl in particular drew my eye. She was plumpish and round-shouldered, and she carried a neutral – almost sullen – expression on her face. She barely opened her mouth when she was singing, made no eye contact with the audience, and seemed altogether uncomfortable. I kind of wondered why she was there at all.
I was surprised when I saw her step forward at the end of a song. I figured that somehow she had been chosen to introduce the next piece, and I wondered if she were going to mumble an introduction the way she seemed to be mumbling the songs. I watched as she took a deep breath. The piano started with a few bars – and she began to sing.
Though many years have passed since my serendipitous discovery of that concert, I still remember the sweetness of that girl’s solo. Her voice rang out, clear and true, and the audience was transfixed – none more than me. I sat, awestruck, stinging with my own ears’ rebuke of my prejudice against this girl: the one with the angelic voice.
As I ran along the waterfront towards home, the sun shone warm above me and salty breezes buffeted the buggy. In the marina, the sailboats’ rigging lines sang in the wind.
I came upon a carpool of construction workers exiting a beat-up old van at their worksite. Two of them were burly, with bellies hanging over their belts where their fluoro vests stopped short; another was rangy, with two days-worth of ‘five o’clock shadow’ and a ciggie hanging, unlit, from the corner of his lips. We called out good-morning greetings as I approached, and in the background I could hear that their music was still playing loudly – as you’d expect. What you might not have expected, though, was their choice of tunes. Strains of Tchaikovsky spilled out of the passenger-side door and mingled with the cries of the gulls overhead.
A global study on happiness was conducted a number of years ago (not ‘The Happiness Project,’ which is somewhat skewed towards richer respondents). They looked at affluent societies, industrial communities, aboriginal groups, families living in the most abject poverty – in short, the researchers covered a great diversity in living situations. And they came up with some surprising findings. What they discovered was that some people living in poverty achieved a greater sense of contentment with life – happiness – than others in far superior circumstances. I remember seeing an interview with a group of people in a slum in India following the release of this study’s results:
“Yes, we’re happy,” said one woman, “Because we’re together.”
“Together” meant eight adults living in a one-bedroom shack. Together meant eating their meagre portions of rice in shifts, because they didn’t have enough bowls for them to share their meal at the same time. Together meant taking turns to sleep, too, because there was only half as much space as they needed to all be stretched out at once.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover”
We all know this expression, don’t we? And yet, how often do we heed the truth of it?
A plain exterior can conceal exquisite talents. Rough edges can hide tender interiors. Financial poverty can obscure the fact of the wealth of a life shared.
Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.
Again and again, I am reminded to suspend my knee-jerk judgement and look deeper for the truth. People are so much more than they appear to be.
This seems an especially apt topic for me to cover right now, as I’m going through a bit of a ‘Common Dowdyfrau’ phase. I look in the mirror, and all I see is what’s wrong with me – overweight, insecure, unattractive… I know that this is how others might perceive me, too.
And yet, I also know that there is so much more to me than that.
I am a beloved child of God, for starters – no matter how unworthy I feel, I cannot dismiss the worthiness this gives me. I am a mother – not always a good mother; not always an accomplished mother; but always, always a devoted mother. I am a wife – loyal, loving, committed. And I am a writer, an editor, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a niece… The mirror tells me one thing, but the Bible tells me to look deeper. My value – and the value of every other human – is contained in who I am and WHOSE I am, and not what I look like.
How much money you make, what school you went to, where you find your friends on the social ladder, who designed your clothes, and how many ‘Likes’ your facebook statuses get – those things don’t define you. What defines you is who you choose to be on a day-to-day basis, and whose you are (because, whether you recognize it or not, you were lovingly created).
So let’s get past those covers and start delving into the stories inside. Let’s stop believing that we’ve got other people all figured out because ‘we can just tell by looking at them.’ And let’s each try to be an open book and invite others to know us better so that they can move beyond appearances, too.
Let’s look inside.