I believe in beauty. I remember the day that I realized this. I was watching a movie about South Africa, and it was telling the story of the oppression and atrocities of apartheid. I can’t remember the details of any of those depressing acts though. What I do remember was near the end: people came together to sing, lots of people. They filled the streets, held hands, sang and smiled. Before I realized it myself, I was sitting thousands of miles away, tears streaming down my face, watching this singing like I was amidst it. Right out loud, I said, “I can’t believe that others don’t see how beautiful this is.” Waves of grief washed over me.
In the days that followed, I kept thinking back to this incident, and trying to understand why it had affected me so much. I was caught on the idea of beauty and what this included. I began to look around and consider how I felt about everything from grand mountain vistas to tiny blades of grass. I began with the easy: visual beauty. This is what most people think of when they are asked to list beautiful things. I found it easy to identify. I love inspecting the fine angle on a newly made kitchen cabinet, or the parallel ribs that flow down the length of a long strong leaf.
But, in my quest to understand beauty more fully, I wondered about other ways of thinking about beauty too. It wasn’t long before I began to identify a myriad of things as beautiful, things which I had always felt a connection to, but which now touched me more deeply as I recognized them: the sweet sauté of onions, the extreme smoothness of hidden skin, the playful swoosh of water. Smells, sounds, tastes, touches: each of the senses provided me with something I treasured just as much as visual phenomena. I felt as if I had been given a gift. How could I have not realized how deeply I might experience these things before? The world seemed like a more exquisite place.
Soon however, it did not seem like enough to merely know beauty for myself. One September morning, I was driving across a high, open bridge and sunrise was suddenly, overwhelmingly around me. Colors pulsed from beneath wisps of clouds, the edges shining with silver luminescence, the mountains a black silhouette. And, without warning, the tears again, streaming down my cheeks. This ache, I thought, where does it come from? I looked out the window into other cars. Were the other drivers crying too? Were they aware of their surroundings? I wanted to tap on the window of the car next to me, “Excuse me, did you happen to notice the indescribable flush of sunrise just now? Can we cry together?” What I suddenly, clearly realized was that I could not handle it alone. I had to have someone to share it with. My mind was filled with the terrifying power of this beauty, a feeling which reached down farther into myself than I thought possible, but somehow felt like life itself.
My desire to share my belief in beauty comes from the deep sense of love it inspires in me, and the understanding that it is there for the taking, whether we notice it or not. This knowledge propels me to help others see it too, such that I am inclined to knock on the windows of fellow drivers at 6:30 am, or to hug people in the grocery store if they look at the red onions in an endearing way, or even hold out a bite of a delicious treat to a complete stranger. As I go through my day, it can seem like a tragicomedy. Comic, giddy, because there is so much beautiful stuff continuously unfolding, and all I have to do is pay attention. Tragic, because there are so many people busy NOT seeing it. Awareness of beauty that is as deep, wide, and emotional as what I am suggesting is an entire way of looking at the world, of knowing, interacting, and actively using one’s body and senses. Beauty is truly a transformative force.
I believe in beauty, and some days this is enough. It fills my life with transcendent richness and meaning. But some days, it fills me with longing for all that the world could be—a turning away from hate and greed toward beauty, which seems so wildly abundant, and if allowed, much more powerful.
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