woman with cancer applies makeup - photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

I no longer recognized myself in the mirror. I am a 52-year-old woman, and I am completely bald. Cancer treatment does that. I had to learn how to use scarves and hats when going out in public, in hopes of fitting in and not eliciting uncomfortable stares. On the day of my first outpatient chemo treatment, I remember thinking, “What does one wear to a chemo appointment?” Assuming at some point in the day I would be getting sick on myself, I went for a dark T-shirt. Why bother with makeup or earrings? The last thing I wanted was for anyone to notice me.

As I entered the waiting room, I really couldn’t tell if the others there were patients or caregivers, but I was sure everyone could tell which one I was. I should have gone for a wig instead of scarves! Just as I was called back to the blood lab, a woman probably 20 years younger than I was coming out. She was rocking an off-the-shoulder summer outfit right out of Vogue with perfectly matching heeled sandals and handbag, earrings, necklace, and bracelets. Her eyes were radiant with just enough makeup to make them noticeable, and she walked with an air of total confidence. She was stunningly beautiful and completely bald. I was shocked. Here was another woman in my situation, who not only didn’t worry about fitting in but clearly sought to stand out! She gave me a reassuring smile as she held the door for me to go in. Her beauty and confidence regardless of having no hair made such an impression on me I found myself still pondering it in my prayer that night. My need to fit in rather than stand out became fodder for some personal discernment.

St. Ignatius, Humble and Countercultural

There were times St. Ignatius went to great lengths to fit in. He gave up his fancy clothes and lifestyle to fit in with the poor. Even after he had written the initial drafts of the Spiritual Exercises based on his own conversion experience, he went back to school to meet the Church’s requirements for preaching. He initially refused the call of the original companions to be the leader of their group. Even as the founder and leader of the Jesuits, he lived simply, dressed modestly, and deferred to the expectations of the pope. Ignatius was all about humility before God, his companions, and those he served.

And yet Ignatius was one of the most countercultural persons of his day. He stood out so much in battle that the army that defeated him at Pamplona honored him. Under his leadership, the Society of Jesus was unique among religious orders, embedding themselves in the daily life of the city rather than withdrawing to a monastery, prioritizing their works of service, and, of course, finding God in places beyond the church building. He challenged the expectations of his day right to the edge of being tolerated. In fact, he faced the Inquisition, and many thought him a heretic, though he was cleared of all charges. In many ways, Ignatius was a rebel who didn’t worry about fitting in at all.

For Ignatius, the bottom line for any discernment was the First Principle and Foundation: choose only that which is more conducive for the end for which we were created, that is, to praise, reverence, and serve God. For me, that translates into being honest about my motivations and recognizing when I am acting out of my fears or ego rather than out of trust in my unique gifts, capacities, and belovedness. It means there will be times when I need to fit in, step back in humility, and trust the gifts of others to show the way forward. It also means there will be times I need to stand out, challenge unhealthy cultural norms and my own ego and fears, and face reality fully, regardless of the cost.

If I Stand Out

I discerned that I have never been called to make a fashion statement the way that fellow patient could. But in standing out and not shying away from her baldness, she showed me that I need not believe my loss of hair has changed my identity. I may not look the same in the mirror, but my capacity to praise, reverence, and serve God in other ways has not changed. I remain a wife, mother, friend, writer, student, advocate for the marginalized, protector of the environment, and caregiver of my body and soul.

Now well into my chemo treatments, I tend to sport a baseball cap most days to protect my head from sunburn. I will take a few minutes to put on some makeup and earrings, but I don’t think much about getting uncomfortable stares. When I do get them, I just smile back reassuringly like that beautiful woman did to me, knowing I still fit in this Ignatian world just fine. If I stand out for anything, let it be for that!

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels.