When I was young, my parents or other adults occasionally quoted to me the old saw, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” I haven’t heard that for a long time. It’s as if the maxim has dropped out of contemporary parlance. Apparently, a metaphor about a book and its cover no longer strikes home in our digital world.
Nevertheless, the adage stands: You still can’t judge a book by its cover. A torn and tattered cover may contain a priceless book while an attractive cover may surround 300 pages of rubbish. Or vice-versa. When I visit a used bookstore, I largely ignore splashy, contemporary covers. Perhaps I have missed some great, even life-changing, books because I was judging them by their covers.
However, no one was ever speaking about books when they shared that bit of wisdom with me. They were always thinking of people. The point is always: You can’t judge a person by the way he or she looks.
Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes it’s the people who appear to have it all together that are falling apart, the people who seem full of confidence that are sad and empty. The psychologist Madeline Levine has identified a new variety of unhappy teenagers. In the past, they were often socially inept kids who got poor grades and struggled to fit in. Now the unhappy teen is increasingly likely to be smart, successful, and privileged — yet lost and profoundly empty.
For Dr. Levine, one client epitomizes this new type of adolescent unhappiness. She was her last appointment on a Friday afternoon, a 15-year-old girl Levine described as “bright, personable, (and) highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied … parents.”
She wore a long-sleeve t-shirt pulled halfway over her hand, with an opening cut in the cuff for her thumb. Since girls sometimes wear these kinds of shirts to hide self-mutilating behaviors, the therapist asked her to pull back her sleeve. When she did, Dr. Levine was startled to find the girl had used a razor to carve the word “EMPTY” onto her forearm.
Levine says that the most common thing she hears from kids these days is, “I’m fake.” On the surface, their lives look good. They are successful students with many friends. They leave school in new cars that take them to beautiful homes with manicured lawns. “But,” Dr. Levine says, “when you get to what’s going on beneath these kids’ T-shirts, there’s not much happening inside.” They are empty.
Emptiness is a disorder that affects adults as well as teens, religious as well as irreligious people. As a pastor, I have met many religious people, including clergy, who look good on the outside but are empty on the inside. They dress right, use the most up-to-date phrases and buzzwords and, frankly, are an impressive sight. But they are, in the prophet Jeremiah’s memorable metaphor, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” They are empty.
That may not always have been the case. They may once have been full of life and enthusiasm but, as a friend of mine says, “People leak.” The outside still looks good, but the inside is empty.
On a bookshelf in my study I keep an empty Coke can. It’s not empty because someone drank it. It is sealed, the pull-top still in place, the familiar white Coca-Cola logo emblazoned on the shiny red can. It came in a case of Coke in which every other can was full, but this one was empty.
I keep it as a reminder that I can look fine on the outside — proper, pious, kind — and yet be empty on the inside, a disappointment to those who are thirsting for something real. People are thirsting, but they will never quench their thirst on the way a thing looks.
Jesus pictured (and lived) a different kind of life, one that is rich and full, and enlivens others. He spoke of the availability of a life in which “rivers of living water” flow from within a person to refresh those around him. This life, as he made clear, is given to those who trust and obey him, but constantly eludes those who rely on appearances.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.