My wife tells me that applying makeup can be as assuring to her as making her first cup of coffee in the morning. She feels it helps her show up as the best version of herself.
Whenever we go to an event, she puts on her makeup. Frequently, her blush and lipstick coordinates with her outfit. Her shoes, bag and nails all match. If she’s feeling daring enough, she accents her hair. I witness a transformation from beautiful to glamorous.
I watch her apply her makeup in layers. First comes the face, with foundation and concealer, then she attends to the eyes and cheeks. I watch with awe as she applies one stroke after another. She might lighten one area and darken another: contouring subtly, but always creating balance. Always balancing.
The balancing of the foundation, eyeshadow and blush, can be ways to cover something, maybe a scar or blemish, something she feels uncomfortable about.
My version of make-up has been my possessions; clothing, cars, even awards, they all gave me a sense of achieving and belonging. I have also been hiding my own scars, as I have pretended to be something different than I am when alone.
We rarely cover the things we feel proud of: the things that make us feel good or attractive. If you have dark and soulful eyes, or earned a company promotion, you might want to show that off to the world. If you carry a scar from a childhood fall, however, you’ll likely cover it. We tend to cover the scars that we are ashamed of. That’s what most of us struggle with.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t realize that my makeup was deeper and more layered than I had thought previously.
Let me backup a bit.
When I was young, I was one of thousands of children affected by Brown vs the Board of Education: the Supreme Court decision that ruled U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
The states’ response? Busing.
Busing was used to achieve racial diversity among students in public schools: it involved taking children from their local schools and then transporting them to communities populated by other races.
When I was first bused, I was only nine years old: innocent, receptive and agreeable. I was moved from a warm, supportive and familiar environment to one where I felt like an intruder, where some saw me as the epitome of all that is wrong with the world.
My teachers told me that I couldn’t learn, that I wasn’t smart, that I couldn’t write. More than anything else, that stuck with me. Because there was no one to help me, I believed those words.
When they told me I couldn’t write, I took it as truth, and didn’t question what they said. Math was less subjective however, less reliant on personal opinion. The answer to a math quiz was either right or wrong.
All this left a scar, a blemish I was not proud of. So, I covered it up.
If you have some understanding of child development you know that if you tell a child something early enough, when they are still open and trusting, they will believe you. Children will equally believe the good things and the critical things you tell them. They will either develop healthy self esteem, or they will learn to feel ashamed and carry the weight of feeling inferior.
When I flourished at math, the positive affirmations started to flow. I needed as much affirmation as possible, to cover my scars. Because they told me that I couldn’t write; I skipped or avoided every writing class I could.
In college, I majored in business because it had the least amount of writing. My choice for a major in college was not about my passion, but simply a way to avoid getting hurt again. Whenever I did get more negative feedback, which was inevitable for Black students back then, it added another wound, another scar, and so I applied more and more makeup.
For my whole life, whenever people have asked me, “Howya doin?” I have always replied that I’m OK. Just fine. No more struggles than anybody else.
I have probably accomplished more than most. I married the college beauty queen and passed the CPA Exam. My two kids completed at two of the best schools in the country. In 1998 I founded Alignstaffing, a staffing agency for the education field. In 2008, I founded The Connections Therapy Center for children with special needs.
Although I have always been proud of those milestones, I was always still covering my scars. Make up looks and feels natural only because the whole world around you is wearing make up too.
Then COVID hit. I called it ‘the war for survival.’ A war requires soldiers, and soldiers don’t wear makeup. COVID made me a soldier in the war for our survival.
Our core business was put on pause because school principals and administrators were overwhelmed with providing instruction to students, understanding the new virtual world, reassuring teachers, and trying to address the concerns of parents.
All my predictions that our business would return to normal were wrong. At each staff meeting I gave hopeful pep talks about when we would resume business.
Then my hopes became a nightmare. Probably like many who had gone through COVID, we had to lay off staff and cut costs, which was tough: tougher than anything I had ever faced before in my entire professional life.
As our team continued to struggle, my personal life was suffering too. Several of my loved ones passed away. As I grieved, the lack of acceptance and the dismissiveness of the severity of COVID from some was unbelievable and hard to watch. The madness wouldn’t stop. Everything got politicized: the deaths, the quarantine, the virus, the vaccine.
Then something in me changed. I stopped being afraid. The makeup started to peel. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just stopped focussing on my deficiencies, imperfections and wounds. I stopped trying to cover up the scars.
I felt I had something to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. I attempted to write, but it was painful at first. So I played all types of music — Lalah Hathaway, Lucky Daye, The Dells, Tom Mish, Steve Perry and many others — loud enough that I couldn’t hear the voice saying ‘You can’t write.’
Then I wrote.
The first thing I wrote was a letter to my clients who were also fighting for survival. I don’t remember what kind of response I got, or if they liked it. I felt I was making a small contribution by trying to make some sense out of this confusion. I wasn’t selling, I was sharing. There was no class, no technology, no theory, or hidden messages that would minimize the effects of the pandemic for me or them.
Then, for some reason, I felt I had more to say. I decided to write again.
I wrote a piece called “Embrace the Unexpected” to encourage leaders to lean into the chaos. “The Beauty of Uncertainty” was intended to help others look for freedom in unpredictable times. They were not just read by my clients, but by business leaders in other industries too.
When people would say, “I enjoy your writing,” my first thought was, “Don’t talk about my scars.” The wounds were still fresh.
My wounds were getting exposed to the air. For the first time in a long time, the makeup was coming off and my skin was getting healthy.
George Floyd was murdered soon after that, which precipitated so much hostility, confusion and societal unrest.
I played more loud music, the writing would not stop.
My essay “The Long-Awaited Cure” came out of this difficult time: it compared the pain of the pandemic with the George Floyd protests. After it got picked up by an on-line magazine, I got more invitations from the media, asking me to add my voice to the conversation.
After January 6th, technical.ly published my piece: “Still Haven’t Talked to your team about the Capitol insurrection? Here’s how to start.” Both the Washington Post and the New York Times contacted me with interest in my story.
What if what my teachers had told me as a child was wrong?
My writing attracted interest from other authors, university professors, thought leaders and CEOs. People wrote to tell me that my work has a new and fresh perspective on relationships, and is healing. The more my essays resonated with people I respected and admired, the more I stopped hiding my scars.
Everyone has scars. Mine came from the Supreme Court decision on busing, but scars could equally come from alcoholism in your family, an abusive mother, or a neglectful father. People have scars from growing up in poverty, from abandonment, or feeling powerless.
Whatever kind of scars we each carry, we tend to think they are ugly, and so we try to cover them up with makeup. Then they lose their gift. Now I know that our wounds and scars are what makes each of us unique and beautiful. When you can learn to express yourself with your scars visible, it will ramp up your authenticity, and your capacity to impact other people.
Your wounds and scars are badges of honor: they are what give you a story worth telling, and allow you to live a fuller life with joy.
Find Your Music. Don’t be afraid to lean into your scars.
(btw, if you are interested, here is the spotify list I was listening to while I was struggling with my writing)