An anonymous letter with only a post office box address was delivered to Elder Oaks. The letter expressed a concern so decisively that he felt to share both it and his reply with me. They state very well the struggle with self-worth so many of us feel in this life.
From the anonymous letter:
I am writing to you because I am unhappy and have been unhappy for years. I am at the point right now that I need someone to give me clarification and guidance so I can begin to exercise faith to change my life; otherwise, I feel I’ll never change.
I am in my upper twenties and am single. Being single is not the underlying problem. The problem is that I am not a [physically] attractive person. I don’t have any abnormal growths or anything, but I’m just not what girls would call good looking. Most girls think I have an awesome personality, super genuine and nice, and have everything going for me. The phrase I often hear is, ‘He’s perfect in every way, but I just don’t have those feelings for him.’ I can’t work on my jawline or the shape of my eyes or other features of my face. I just want to be attractive and have my wife think I’m attractive. What this means is that I have had very little opportunity over the years to date girls that I am interested in.
This young man writes not only about his unattractiveness and the toll it is taking on his dating life but also about his unhappiness. This raises a delicate question about whom any of us choose to date. We have to be realistic about whom we can attract and whom we find attractive.
Many young men seem to be looking for Barbie with a testimony, when they themselves do not look anything like Ken, Barbie’s counterpart, and are perhaps only marginally active in the Church.
Looks are somewhat important, but once we get to know someone well, our ideas about their appearance may change. A person we thought beautiful may, because of an unpleasant disposition, become unattractive to us. Likewise, someone who has gone unnoticed may suddenly, because of some inner nobility or other asset of personality, become very attractive to us.
The young man continued his letter by complaining about the body Heavenly Father gave him:
As a result of this, my faith and patience with the Lord have been tried. I keep telling myself He could have made me handsome, but He didn’t. Why? Why am I ugly and a lot of my close friends are attractive (and married, too). At this point in my life I have very little hope of ever being happy. I feel like what’s the point of being good? What’s the point of keeping the commandments? To what end? To what end?
I felt the discouragement and disorientation of this young man. His concern over his physical appearance has become all-encompassing. He does not make any connection between keeping the commandments and personal happiness. He is beginning to give up on himself.
Often when we give up on ourselves we make the assumption that God has given up on us when He is just beginning to work on us. Our Heavenly Father promises that if we endure our adversities well, He will strengthen us in them and that ultimately these struggles will become sanctifying experiences that will qualify us for exaltation (D&C 121:7–8).
In our discouragement we sometimes forget the words of the Lord when He counseled Samuel as he was trying to find a king for Israel:
“Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Take a moment to look around at those who influence you most and whom you love. It is not because of their exterior beauty. It is because of their unique and caring, even quirky, natures. External appearances have only limited impact.
The young man writing the letter had not yet taken time to love himself intrinsically and eternally or to look for anything beyond exterior beauty. Ironically, by not recognizing his own inner beauty, he lost the ability to love anyone else for theirs, and in his depression he made bad decisions.
In his letter the young man admitted that he was struggling with the commandments. He was living a life he was not proud of, and he had approached his bishop to correct his mistakes.
Every one [of my mistakes] stems from all this [my ugliness]. I get so depressed being turned down, again, by girls that my resolve to be obedient is gone. I find repentance pointless. The only reason I am still trying is because of the great peace it brings into my life. But while I may have peace, I am still unhappy.
In his discouragement this young man tried the ways of the world, seeking to ease his dissatisfaction but finding only more pain. He had felt the Spirit and had been blessed by the peace of it, yet he now has great self-loathing and feels unhappy. He is fixated on his own weaknesses and has forgotten his real eternal identity.
At times we are all unhappy with ourselves. Nothing is more demoralizing for young people than to feel that no one finds them attractive. Everyone has been discouraged with some aspect of themselves—from looks to brains to athletic ability to ability to relate with others. Each of us has felt moments of frustration, devastation, or limitation. That is part of our earth-life experience. How we react to those situations makes all the difference. Heavenly Father has blessed us with eternal perspective, and if we live worthy of it and trust in Him, that eternal perspective can ease the burdens of life.
In closing, the young man wrote:
P.S. Do you ever think about what you will look like in the next life? Are you 100 percent comfortable with how you look? I would ask this same question to everyone, not just you.
Elder Oak’s wise reply (no name was given):
Though we don’t normally respond to anonymous letters, I am responding to your letter expressing your concerns and unhappiness with your physical appearance. You say you ‘just want to be attractive.’
I will not say that looks are not important, but I do think you have built a definition and pedestal for attractiveness that is far higher than it should be. We teach that true beauty is founded on righteousness, virtue, and gospel living.
All one has to do is look around an old folks home to see how transparent skin-deep beauty is. Or compare the attractiveness of some people before twenty and after fifty. The long-term beautiful people of the world are people of generosity, thoughtfulness, and all the other basic Christian values. Further, when you look at the skin-deep beautiful people of movie stardom and see how often they move in and out of marriage, it is apparent that attractiveness is not synonymous with happiness.
To highlight this truth consider this description of the Savior in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah:
‘Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant . . . he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.’
Even in the life of Christ himself, physical beauty was not important; and consequently, we should not let it become too important to us.
You ask if I am concerned about what I will look like in the next life. I spend no time fussing about this relatively unimportant matter. I work on conducting my life in a way that reflects my testimony of Jesus Christ. I recommend you do the same.”
Adapted from A Single Voice by Kristen M. Oaks.
What is “the single best thing you can do” as a single person in the Church? Are there ways to ease the transition from a singles ward to a home ward? What are some specific ways to make single life happier and more fulfilling? What are some tips for coping with the unique challenges of holidays? What are the key decisions that singles need to make? Get the answer to these questions and more in A Single Voice.