At the end of a recent school day, I was walking towards the parking lot to meet my mother and be driven home. It had been a normal day, with no great joys or disruptions to set me off my usual course. I stepped left and then right, over and over, with a few thoughts scattered in mind, but hardly sensing my surroundings. Then two small shapes of color blazed in my vision. I stopped and looked down; it was a butterfly, collapsed on the pavement. It lay still, apparently dead. I was awed by the strange, elegant patterns on its wings. Suddenly I saw not only the butterfly but the grass beside it, the air surrounding it and me, the cars and trees and distant calling birds. A beautiful thing had just died. But beauty had entered my mind, shaking me from a distant, unthinking state.
We spend much of our lives in a sort of fog, numbly going through the motions of routine and custom. Many of us find work or school to be a chore, best endured in a state of level distraction. We sense without really feeling; we look but do not see. We must empty our souls to survive the rush and repetition of our working lives. To me, such tedium is the enemy of beauty and creative thought. Boredom drives a wondrous spirit from us. Thus we feel the need to “get away from it all” on weekends and vacations—this, we think, is when we really live; when we absorb ourselves in love and leisure. But ultimately, there is no life other than daily life. The pursuit of fulfillment through an escape from work and routine is as hollow as the pursuit of happiness through acquisition of material goods. The solution is not a flight from common life, but a rediscovery of it, a renewal of its origins.
We must begin by looking. Where are we? The key to knowing the beauty of our everyday existence is “mindfulness” in the Buddhist sense—to be utterly immersed in each moment. We must remember that the world’s glories are present at every moment, not just at times of transcendence. We must remind ourselves about the deeper purpose of our daily activities. To serve others, to enrich our minds, to guide and protect—every job has a meaning greater, nobler, and more beautiful than its immediate intent.
Carried on that butterfly’s wings were not only beauty but also its attendant forces of love, mystery, serenity, curiosity—and death. Death, “the mother of beauty”, as Wallace Stevens called it, is our final, most perplexing lesson in life, and the one seemingly most distant from our everyday experience. But when we see the tiniest elements of experience as expressions of the world’s infinite truths, including death, our own mortality becomes a connection with everything, not a conclusion. The butterflies flutter to the ground, but the world is illuminated.
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