The Beauty We Love
Beauty is the way that the universe makes love to us. I neither exaggerate nor blaspheme nor trivialize. An encounter with beauty simultaneously awakens and calms us, bonds us to the world, deepens our feeling of living. What else gives so much for so little effort? Or, as John O’Donohue expresses it, beauty is God’s invisible embrace.
So, was it just this morning that I woke up thinking I needed a good scare? That I just don’t feel that old motivational anxiety sufficiently to live vibrantly? And did I think, too, that I probably needed a dose of gross ugliness, things repugnant to my senses, like loud grinding noises at irregular intervals, the smell of machine exhaust in large noxious blasts, a cacophony of visual glare, fingernails screeching on slate for a dose of both auditory and tactile aversion. No, wait. It was not this morning, nor any morning of my entire life. I don’t need anxiety to feel alive, and I don’t need ugliness to appreciate beauty. Never have. That’s why there’s so much about popular culture, and, if I am honest, about myself, that I just don’t get.
Why does so much of what we make play on terror and horror and ugliness, when these are not what we want? Why do we produce so much of it, and consume so much of it? Movies, advertisements, petitions, information sharing; they all warn us what to do to avoid getting mugged on the way to work, having our cars break down, being unable to pay our bills, being old and sick and left to die, having the boss dislike and sideline us. And we are advised ad nauseum about what to do if you get PTSD, or depression, or restless leg syndrome, or erectile dysfunction, not to mention cancer or diabetes. So that’s our mental diet, and we wonder why it doesn’t feel good in here? Or we don’t wonder, but take a pill for it? It seems a bit of a vicious circle.
Lately I have been so hungry for beauty that the longing is seeping from my pores, leaping from eyes, magnetically drawing my hands out to touch. Conversely, I have recently been repelled by ugliness of every kind, most especially the news, but even Facebook which carries just enough of the ugly to be aversive, certainly movie trailers and billboards, talk shows. I feel stuffed, glutted, as though I have eaten nothing but greasy food for months. No more. Please. No more. And I am almost groveling with gratitude for those counter-culture inspirational billboards. Pass it on.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” This is a nearly ubiquitous line from the poet Rumi. Seeing it somewhere almost daily tells me that my own longings are not some idiosyncratic desire. Yet they stand in stark contrast to the reality of harsh political rhetoric, a broad culture of critique in which, for nearly all of us, criticism comes most readily to mind, and even defines what it means to be smart. “Would you take a moment to rate this?” NO! But I am almost dying to take a moment to appreciate something, the beauty of human hands, the leaping grace of my dog, Bunny, the way the morning light smiles coyly through the few winter leaves remaining on the oak trees behind my back fence, the sound of the creek refreshed by rain and singing loudly. Would you take a moment to notice the utter extravagant brush that has painted the world beautiful? Yes! Please. I would love to!
I used to say of living on the Kern River in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, a line from an Allman Brothers song, “Before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime, out where the rivers like to run, I stand alone and take back something worth remembering.” This is an act of hunger for beauty itself. There is nothing more worthwhile. There is nothing you should sell beauty to get, but perhaps should sell everything else to get beauty, like the pearl of great price that it is.
And so I say with Rumi, let the beauty we love be what we do, but I have done many other things, and not the beauty so much. I have done so many other things with my time, activities done not for intrinsic reasons, but to get something else: money, recognition, pleasing other people, all in the hopes that somewhere I will arrive at true worth. But the beauty I love is always right here, very nearby, ready to give me the full value of every day. It is beauty that bonds me to another person, not some abstract idea of his dignity or her worth. It is beauty that bonds me to the natural world, not the threat of extinction or an estimate of its numerical value. What on earth is wrong with me? What permission do I need to simply show up and choose it? What permission do you need? I give you my permission, and I beg for yours: please do encourage me in the ways of beauty. I think God must weep with longing that we just show up to receive the abundant beauty bestowed upon us every day.
So this year I arrive at the early seeding season, the time to reflect on what I would like to plant in the garden of my life over the coming year. I want to choose seeds that I care about, that I will attend to, that will nourish me and be good in the world. I have one clear and strong desire: to plant seeds of beauty. These I know I will want to nourish, to tend, to notice; I will walk in beauty and let that walk be the harvest. And not just for this year, but for the rest of my life, as given in the Navajo Beauty Way chant, an inspiration that has been there nagging at the edge of my mind for the whole of my adult life. The Navajo exhortation to walk in beauty, beautiful in its own right, ends this way: "In old age, on a trail of beauty, may I walk lively. Let it finish in beauty.”
When the soul cries out for beauty,
feed her with beauty, so
like the pollen of bees,
beauty is powerful food.
Like the honey of bees,
beauty’s sweetness heals the
soul’s wounds, strengthens
her wings for flight.
When the Soul cries out for beauty,
give her beauty to drink
like humming bird’s nectar,
straight from flower’s kiss.
When the soul cries out for beauty
bathe her in beauty, let a
thousand and one drops fall
as dew on the soul’s parched skin.
Receive each kiss of beauty
like a wedding night. And
in your own most beautiful voice
welcome her, saying Yes, Yes!