I had butterfly mania the summer I turned nine. My family had just moved to a new home in the far reaches of Texas Hill Country, and early one morning in our first month, I discovered a dewy-winged marvel of a creature in my grandmother’s garden, all midnight black and iridescent blue. “Oh, it’s a swallowtail,” said my grandmother nonchalantly—as if this creature, like a tiny seraph or faerie queen from the realm of myth, was a matter of the everyday. She marched inside and pulled an old Audubon guide off the shelf. It became my obsessive study as I immersed myself in the exotic realm of butterflies; the names, the rare, gleaming colors seemed to open an otherworld of beauty that made me hungry for something I couldn’t name. One day, a few weeks later, I chased a little buckeye butterfly through the fields. I was drawn farther and farther up and into the golden world until my breath ran out. I remember sinking to the dirt, knees knobbled by the pebbles, laughing after my fifth attempt to catch the little thing. I was delighted in the hunt after that beauty. My breath slowed and I sat back on my heels, alert and still.
Abruptly, and more completely than I can describe, my sense of time was suspended as I lifted my face to the great blue dome of the Texas sky. For one mesmerizing moment, I became aware of the personal, present goodness thrumming in every atom of the world around me. I knew this was the beauty whose presence I yearned to touch in the mystical beauty of those butterfly wings. I knew I was encountering God. And I knew, with knowledge as pervasive within me as my own heartbeat, I was loved, loved, loved. This, I knew in my bones, is my story.
Until a dark night, probably just a few weeks later.
I had been kissed and put to bed as usual by my parents. I lay in the darkness, waiting for sleep. But my brain seemed strangely wired; my thoughts came faster and faster and they began to careen toward images of horror that terrified me. My imagination ran at frenzied speed, peopling the room I couldn’t now see with evil shapes and images, filling my mind with images that baffle and disgust me to this day.
I still find it hard to write about the obsessive, intrusive images that have plagued me throughout my life. I tried as a child to describe them to my mom, but even then I was too ashamed to give a full description of the violent, perverted ideas and pictures that came from out of some void inside my own brain. The episode I experienced that night was a warning shot by a mind on the edge of breaking. It would be eight more years before I was diagnosed with a lesser-known form of OCD when stress and hormones complicated my body and triggered the full expression of my mental illness at seventeen. But that night, the darkness already felt absolute.
At nine years old, I recognized that the ugliness I saw within me and the despair it worked presented me with a powerful narrative about existence: it closed the horizons of hope by caging me in with fear; it cut me off from relationship as I drew away in shame from others; it told me that the bleak, shattered reality I experienced was the ultimate reality of the world and of my guilty, miserable self and the love I had sensed in the world on the day I chased the butterfly was an illusion.
In that marvelous and terrifying summer of my little girlhood, I was introduced to the rival stories of the world. Beautiful or broken? Despair or hope? Evil or love?
I’ve been trying to answer those questions ever since. I’ve been trying to decide which story is true. And I think this is the fight to which each of us is called every day of our lives. For we all experience both perspectives, often from littlest childhood. The story of shattering, of course. Of evil and illness and loss and abuse. But also the story of beauty.
For beauty comes to us all in moments that unravel our cynical surety as our hearts seem to come apart at the touch of some odd slant of light on an evening walk. Or we hear the strained thread of some beloved old music that seems to break the spell of doubt. My deep belief is that beauty has a story to tell, one that was meant by God to speak to us of his character and reality, meant to grip our failing hands with hope. We know God when we behold his beauty; when his goodness invades the secret rooms of our hearts. To believe the truth that beauty tells: this is our great struggle from the depths of our grief. To trust the hope it teaches us to hunger toward: this is our fierce battle. To craft the world it helps us to imagine: this is our creative, death-defying work.
Beauty and brokenness told me two different stories about the world.
I believe that Beauty told true.
What has been the defining experience either of beauty or brokenness in your life and relationship with God?
Where have you witnessed God’s goodness breaking into your darkness?