Posts Tagged ‘identity’

a hero without a face

I have my heroes, same as everyone else – Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Helen Keller — people whose true stories are greater than my simple imaginings, and who share their lives as open encouragement and inspiration for others.  Well,  today I am awed by a new hero, one who is inspiring me when I feel down and freakish with my bell’s palsy  – an unlikely young man who suffered the loss of his entire face in a freak electrical accident. He spent a time with no face at all, just a layer of skin and muscles grafted from other parts of his body, stretched over his skull where his face should have been.  He was eventually the first successful full face transplant in America, now wearing the face of a much older man.  His name is Dallas Wiens.

How does one even imagine what it would be like to live without a face…  Our face is how we recognize ourselves, how we BE ourselves, the symbol of ourselves to others, our vehicle of expression and identity.  Without a face, why, we would be nobody, nothing, in a prison of solitude at best — at the worst, we would be a freak.  So much of the sense of who we are is what we see in the mirror every day.

Psychologists tell us that an infant forms her personal identity by what is mirrored to her in the face of her mother.  Or his.  The child begins to gain a sense of self through what the parent mirrors back:  you are loveable, you are delightful, you are clever, you are fun, or you are stupid, you can’t do anything right, you are in the way…  It is the mirror that tells us who we are; otherwise how would we know?

Dallas Wiens with his young daughter, before the accident; credit:Fox 4 News DFW

Dallas Wiens’ journey took him from having turned his back on God years earlier, straight into the depths of hell.  Quite literally.  In his “near-death” experience he tells of being sucked into an infinite void.  “I saw every sin flash before my eyes, and then I felt a pain that I never before or since felt,” he said.  “It wasn’t physical and it wasn’t internal.  It was like being forsaken, that’s the only way to describe it.  I remember crying out and hearing nothing, and it was utter impermeable darkness.  It was basically separation completely from the divine, and then coming back with God’s arms around me, and an overwhelming sense of peace.”  Dallas Wiens lost his face that day, and without the option of seeing himself in a mirror, it was the mirror of God’s love and grace that began to forge a new identity deep in his soul.

Mr. Wiens’ experience has of course put my puny struggle with facial palsy into a sort of perspective.  Yet as he talks about being “reshaped …into someone new”, I resonate with the truth of what he is saying.  Letting go of an unexamined reliance on the idea that the person I see in the mirror is who I am has been both a bitter and, in the last few months,  a more peaceful process.  The initial trauma was very real, the ongoing adjustments to a half-functioning face have been slow.  It has been nearly two years now since the onset of  Bell’s Palsy, which left me with only 30% function on the right side of my face and new nerves that have cross-wired.  This means that my face is not symmetrical, my eyebrow doesn’t work at all, my cheek muscles are pulled up into an Elvis sneer and my right eye doesn’t blink but it does close and twitch when I eat.   I can manage a smile with only half of my face, so when I feel that I am smiling broadly the effect is actually more like a grimace.  I recognize the micro-second process that happens whenever I meet someone new:  Something is wrong with that woman, I shouldn’t stare.  That response is a kind of mirror of shame that I have needed to learn not to look into.  But I understand their response.  I find that I do the same thing when I involuntarily catch myself in a mirror.

When I catch myself in a mirror, (or, horrors, a photograph!) there is a mighty strong reaction to look away.   That person isn’t me!  What I am discovering, instead, is that there IS a steady, strong me on the other side of my face.  A quieter me.  A gentler me.  A truer me, perhaps.  A Me that is, at any rate, more restful and trusting in God’s reassuring presence.  In the mirror of His love I am finding a connection to a deeper well, a deeper source of identity.  I expect that I will, in time, even grow to love my face.

Kathleen Bogart, (a psychology researcher at Tufts University in Boston who has Moebius Syndrome,  a rare congenital condition that causes complete facial paralysis) states, “The face does form our first impressions, but once we populate our knowledge with the rest of the person, the face recedes to the background.”  I know that my family and friends no longer ‘see’ my dysfunctional face.  They know and enjoy my smile and laughter for what it is.  Talking with only half my mouth becomes a quirky part of me.  The discomfort and stress I FEEL in my face will continue to recede over time, and I will become less and less conscious of it.  My own sense of self will continue to integrate, I pray, as is Dallas Wiens’.

What he says is this:  “What they saw wasn’t me; it was just a mask that I wore, just like their faces were masks that they wore.”  In a way, we all wear masks, don’t we…  And when your mask stops working, you discover a beautiful freedom becomes available, if you let it….

the ‘new’ Dallas Wiens, with his delightful daughter

For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I am fully known.

I Corinthians 13:12

*Quotes by Mr. Wiens are from an article in the New Yorker magazine, Transfiguration, by Raffi Khatchadourian, Feb.13&20, 2012

You can read another post related to my experience with Bell’s Palsy here:  WHAT’S IN YOUR SMILE?  and here:  CUTENESS


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