The Ugly Season

The Ugly Season
There are times when I look at my face in the mirror and I can see all the stress, grief, fear and turmoil of my life looking back at me: dark circles under my eyes, the strange color of my skin, the unfamiliar shape of my cheeks, hair that either frizzes around my forehead or droops in lifeless strings. I wish I could say I meet this image infrequently, but it happens often enough that I finally have a name for it: The Ugly Season.

Years ago, when I first saw this face, I looked at myself and hated my image. I felt it revealed my failings and only felt shame for allowing myself to fall into this state. But more recently I’ve surprised myself with some self-compassion. In my face I see the wreckage of what’s transpiring in my life at that moment – a child who’s choices have led to devastating losses, a marriage swallowed up by depression, a job that feels small and cramped, friendships that wither from lack of attention, a schedule too full for exercise or prayer, parents struggling with failing health. And I acknowledge, without criticism or judgment, but with honest eyes, the ugliness of the season. Of course my image reflects the interior terrain of my heart. I see this image now as a mile marker, a guidepost, of where I am on this journey. I will not live here forever…I’m traveling through, on my way to a more beautiful landscape.

It makes me think now of the corn field behind the home where I lived in Maryland. In the summer I looked over glistening rows of deep, dark green stalks. But in winter, the field was pocked with broken, brown stubs, like the stark landscape of an uninhabitable planet. I hated how it looked, and sometimes summer would come and it would remain unchanged, acres of ugliness stretching to the horizon. At first I wondered if the farmer had forgotten to plant the field, but over time came to understand the importance of this ugly season. Beneath the broken corn stubs and graying plant matter, miraculous things were happening in the soil. An unseen community of microbes devoured the abandoned, decaying ugliness, slowly restoring nutrients to the soil. This silent, essential work in the only thing that made the next harvest possible. There would not be another season of towering green stalks, or mounds of leafy alfalfa, without the Ugly Season. This reminded me of the pimply bottom of my infant son, and then later the pimply face of his adolescent years. Both times his body erupted with these ugly manifestations of the hormonal changes driving his growing years.

We all have Ugly Seasons. Sometimes the ravages of our life can be seen in our faces and bodies. Other times our moods, or the chaos taking over our house. Often this season arrives in the wake of losses or griefs. But it also accompanies transitions like births, weddings, graduations, new work or retirement. During this season, rather than survey the unlovely landscape of your life with criticism, shame or judgment, I encourage you instead to look below the surface. Trust that the “ugliness” reveals a deeper work taking place inside your soul. Unseen microbes of grace feast on the remains of the previous season, transforming what was left behind into new paradigms, creative insights, deeper compassion, surprising trust or greater generosity… essential ingredients for your next growing season.

Living compassionately without ourselves during the Ugly Season is a practice in Advent Grace. It’s about waiting and watching. Trusting that God is coming into the dark, preparing to be born into the ugly, in order to bring light from dark, order from the chaos, life from the death. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Questions for Reflection
As you look back over you life, can you name some of the Ugly Seasons? Look at them with as much compassion as you can muster. How did the “ugliness” manifest itself? What brought these seasons on? What grew from them?

If you’re in such a season now, what can you say to yourself that is kind and encouraging? Consider writing a mantra for yourself that you speak when you look in the mirror and are discouraged by what you see.