It was a full-sheet chocolate cake with white buttercream frosting. I know because I was lifting the lid and peeking into the box long before the family arrived to pick it up. Drawn in big, red letters on top was a variation of the phrase, “Good luck, Elder ______ and Elder ________! We’ll miss you!” The words framed two flags, one from Texas, the other from a country in South America. It was a beautiful cake. Mainly beautiful, to me, because it was SO MUCH FREAKING CAKE. And chocolate, at that. But the decorators had definitely worked hard on it. The flags were pretty nifty.
Crowded out by a rush of customers, I carried that missionary cake to the display case and set it on top, proudly lifting the lid and asking the sister, who had come to pick it up, “Does this look okay?” I was surprised when her dark eyes clouded and she paused, saying nothing. Finally, she said, “Umm…yeah. Can you wait here? I need to go get my mom to help me carry it out.”
A few minutes later, they were both standing at the display. Before I could turn and carry the box to their shopping cart, the sister spoke, brow furrowed.
“Actually, don’t give it to us yet. It doesn’t look that great, and we want it fixed.”
I was confused. I opened the lid and tried to find some sort of discrepancy, but the cake matched the order. My words were garbled in my throat as I tried to ask what was wrong. I was interrupted by one of the decorators flitting over, wondering what the matter was. Drifting towards the wall, I stood back and watched as the daughter animatedly explained that the lettering wasn’t straight and the exclamation points and “G” in “good luck” looked really poorly drawn, that this was a mission farewell and all of their family was coming and that the cake had better well be perfect, or heaven knows what would happen. As the lid was lifted off of the cake and the mother/daughter duo went to do some shopping, I peeked at the cake again. Three letters were approximately a centimeter lower than the other letters. I was flabbergasted.
Kids would be stuffing their face with that cake the next day. It would last a maximum of five minutes on the table before being cut and sliced and eaten and digested, remembered for the flags and the people it celebrated and the warm way it settled in stomachs. Not the exclamation points, not the fact that one letter was slightly lower than the other. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, those things didn’t matter. It was a cake, for Pete’s sake. As long as the inside tasted okay, everything was good, right?
I say that, and then I realize how I treat myself sometimes. I’m my own worst customer.
Take, for example, the other day. I woke up, my face a mottled peach and red without makeup, and I walked into the bathroom. Staring into the mirror, I consciously thought to myself, Gee, Ari. You can’t even begin to compete with those other girls–that pretty blonde one in your Institute class, for instance–with the kind of makeup and hair that you have. Try hard today, okay? Maybe then that boy you like will notice you instead of her and girls like her. It didn’t stop there. My contacts weren’t entirely clean and my eyes watered, so my inner jerk made me feel bad for having reddish eyes. I tried putting on eyeliner and my hand shook badly. My inner jerk told me that because it wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough. I, essentially, presented myself to the mirror that morning, asking, “Do I look okay?” and was met by the cruel, bitter part of me that said, “You don’t look that great, and I want you fixed.”
What irritates me the most is wondering about when I started allowing thoughts like that to get into my head. I’ve been funneling those things in there for a long time now, telling myself that presentation is more important than identity, subtly telling myself that until I learn how to properly use eyeliner or until I buy a sweater as cute as the one my classmate’s wearing or until I learn how to use a curling iron (to this day, I cannot use a freaking curling iron), my self and my definition as a person mean nothing. Can you see how faulty that is? It’s faulty, but all of us do it.
Every day, at some minor or major point, we choose to trump presentation over what’s on the inside. We choose to not care about our inner influence and instead irrationally run ourselves to the ground worrying about how we look. Maybe we say to ourselves, “All of the people I wish to impress the most are going to be at that party or in that room, and heaven forbid that I look imperfect.” The thing is, we, like cake, weren’t created to look pretty or perfect, but to function, to make others happy. If cake doesn’t make you happy, I apologize, but it makes me pretty darn stinking happy. I like chocolate cake, no matter how it looks. It’s rich, it’s soothing, it’s soft as air. Sometimes I scrape off the icing, because the icing is not what makes the cake for me. It’s the cake.
What do I like about myself, excluding the “icing”? My sense of adventure, my ability to read voraciously, my appreciation of good music and good art and good writing, my ability to be sensitive, and, yes, even my weaknesses. Like the one that makes my knees tremble and my voice wobble when I talk in front of people or the one that makes me extremely vocal when I’m driving the speed limit and the over-eager driver behind me wants to go ten over or the one that turns me into a complete aloof-appearing moron who wants to hide under a rock when I’m near someone I’m attracted to. I’ve come to the conclusion that those things make me quirky and kind of cute in my quirkiness. I’m sometimes weird and sometimes awkward for a reason, but that reason is not to give me an excuse to berate myself. Because no matter what my inner connoisseur has to say about anything, I’m still worthy of love and worth investing in. We all are. We know that when we know that our Savior’s whole purpose on earth was to invest in us. He doesn’t care if we don’t look great. He only cares that we realize that greatness comes from the inside.
I’ll be honest, the Atonement confuses me more than anything sometimes, but just knowing that it was given to us to perfect us, to make us see the good in ourselves and become even better, is something neat.
I become better when I choose to stop measuring myself by some ridiculous societal standard of beauty or some cruel standard I create myself. So what if that blonde girl is pretty? I should tell myself. You’ve got a lot going for you on the inside, and if you’d just focus on accentuating those things, the outward things wouldn’t matter as much and would in fact seem better just by you realizing how good you inherently are on the inside. Frankly, the icing doesn’t mean anything if the stuff beneath the icing tastes like garbage.
For further example: you know those stunning wedding cakes on display at the bakery? They’re nothing more than cylindrical blocks of Styrofoam covered in icing, worth nothing in spite of how many children leave filthy fingerprints on the glass while ogling at them. Even if they were real cakes, they’d waste away and become disgusting because their sole purpose is to look pretty. That is not our sole purpose.
There are things I didn’t say to those customers in the bakery that day. If I didn’t care about keeping my job, I probably would have demanded to know why they would ruin the existence of that beautiful cake by complaining about its outward design. I probably would have grabbed them by their collars and moaned, “It’s a cake! Why can’t you just be happy with its cakeness?!”
To you, and to me, I pose the same question: why can’t you just be happy with your youness?
It isn’t until we shut up about our outward design and focus on our inward design that we can find true contentment and true worth.