A Birthmark Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence

Shelley Lieber • 5 min read

Is imperfection a blessing or curse?

A Birthmark Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence

Do you remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark in high school or college? I do, but I’m a book nerd and English was my favorite subject. In truth, I remember more titles of the books I’ve read than the actual story lines, but this one stood out for me all these years.

I’ll give you a short recap: An alchemist marries a woman who is considered the most beautiful in all the land. Yet despite her great beauty (inside and out), he becomes obsessed with her only visible flaw—a small birthmark on her cheek. The tiny red mark on her face was shaped like a hand, and it was rumored that an angel had left his imprint there upon delivering her to Earth at birth.

Because he is a man of science, the alchemist declares he can concoct a potion to remove the birthmark from his beloved’s face —and that he must, in fact, do it.

And so he does. Each day he gives his lovely wife a cup of the potion and, sure enough, the birthmark begins to get lighter. However, as the offending mark fades, so does his wife’s life force. Even though it’s clear that her health is failing as the birthmark becomes fainter, he insists on continuing.

Finally, he administers the last dosage to her in bed for she is too weak to rise. As she drinks the last sip, the birthmark disappears completely and she dies in his arms.

The story was first published in 1843, near the end of what is considered the literary Age of Romance, a movement in direct opposition to the preceding Age of Reason. Hawthorne was warning his readers that disaster can be the result when obsession with science and “fixing” things conflicts with the laws of nature and spirituality.

Humans are not meant to be perfect; that is the realm of the angels, he suggests. Once the single flaw of alchemist's beloved was removed, she had to leave this imperfect earth to once again join the angels in heaven, the domain of perfection.

I’m not sure why this particular story left such an impression on me among the many, many books I’ve read, but it did. Not only have I remembered it for myself at times when I became obsessed with perfection, but I also related the tale to my children when they found something about themselves they considered to be an unfixable flaw they must suffer. I hoped the story would help them learn to accept and love themselves as they were.

Metaphors for present-day circumstances abound. The most obvious and probably over-documented is our culture’s obsession with looking and smelling good. There are many instances of how our unrealistic desires not to age or to have Barbie- or Ken-like bodies resulted in physical and emotional damage.

Remember Joan Rivers? Perhaps she’s the modern-day version of the wife in The Birthmark. She died in her final attempt to achieve immortal looks after dozens of surgeries.

But the pursuit of perfection isn’t limited to our personal bodies. It carries over into our lifestyles in the form of Keeping up with Joneses to the extent that anything less than a smooth, easy, perfect trajectory of present and future sets us off in a tailspin to fix it. Thanks to social media, now in addition to sizing up ourselves to TV-perfect, we have both “influencers” and even our friends’ photos to help us gauge our lives as “less-than.”

• • •

I didn’t start out to write this today. In fact, I awoke in a mild panic about what I was going to write at all. After a short meditation, I was guided to get inspiration from my new Muse Tarot deck. So I asked the cards for a blog topic for today. Here is what I pulled:

From The Muse Tarot by Chris-Anne


The Moon: A woman stands under the light of a full moon with two paths clearly lighted, but she can’t see her way forward. The image suggests hidden truths, shadows, and reluctance to face fears. Great beginning, I thought.

10 of Inspiration (Wands in traditional Tarot): A woman is carrying a great burden as she tries to care for the many around her. Getting better all the time.

The Hermit: Need for solitude, introspection, or seeking sage advice from a mentor. Hmmm.

My initial thought was: Is this pull for me personally or for the blog audience as intended?

I pulled another card, this time from the Priestess of the Light deck: River of Blessings. Releasing constraints. Double Hmmm.

Time to release the message of the Muse in the Great Idea Incubator (the shower). And my effort was rewarded. I “got it” in a spray of inspiration from my super deluxe shower head. Oh, right!

When I am reading for others, I always mention that when we receive cards that don’t point directly to finding our perfect mate, achieving immediate success, or getting exactly what we want that it doesn’t mean it will never happen.

The cards reflect the energy of the moment. If a card comes up that indicates an obstacle or delay, that means “for now.” The cards can also reveal red flags that we may be ignoring or overlooking. Or if they show a possible negative outcome, we can change course. We are always at choice; we are the masters of our free will.

This insight is what reminded me of The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Less than perfect” can be good. The message from the Tarot Muse suddenly made perfect sense.

We are approaching the favorite (for some) and “fraught with anxiety” (for others) time of year. For most, it’s a combo deal on the emotional scale. Many of us may be feeling a bit fearful of the days ahead. (The Moon) Certainly it’s common to feel burdened with responsibility during the holidays. (10 of Inspiration) And many of us would benefit from a solitary break for some peaceful and soul-restoring introspection or guidance from an outside source, if necessary. (The Hermit)

• • •

We didn’t come here to be Barbie and Ken. We’re not plastic and do not require plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes.

Nor do our lives need fixing every time there’s a bump in the road. It’s more important to learn to deal with the ups and downs than it is to eliminate them (an impossible task anyway).

There’s a certain thrill that comes with riding a wave, rafting in the rapids, or skydiving. It the edgy feeling of danger mixed with a rush of exhilaration of pushing yourself past your comfort zone. Personally, that’s not my preferred method for achieving excitement, but it does make a lovely metaphor.

Those of us with gentler constitutions can achieve a similar rush just navigating the road of life with its curves, hills, and valleys. Taking chances with opportunities, unchartered routes, and spontaneous “in the moment” choices and decisions can serve the same purpose.

Life is messy. We will get wrinkled. Sometimes we do everything right and still get unwanted results. That’s the “secret sauce” that makes everything better in the long run. So if you see signs ahead that indicate some turbulence, just say hmmm or maybe, huh, and change course if necessary.

The message is to know that the journey’s not over yet. The joy comes from being grateful that it isn’t.

Image: Broken Dreams ©Gemignani.

Text ©Shelley Lieber

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