The Gift of Beauty
Joyce and I are walking down a North Carolina beach at dawn. It’s mid-September. The twilit sky is pale blue-gray, with shadings of mauve and orange. We pause, moved by the muted colors and the soft background murmur of surf.
Then, without warning, we are overtaken by a flight of brown pelicans, eight or nine of them, gliding low overhead in perfect formation. Their watchful eyes are serene, their elegantly angular bodies motionless, as they drift slowly across our field of vision.
The beauty of the moment strikes both of us with an intensity edging on anguish. Joyce feels her fuses being blown, as though only a small dose of such high-voltage beauty may be safely taken in before the self-protective mechanisms go into shut-down mode.
Watching the pelicans recede down the beach, I recall C.S. Lewis’ tribute to Tolkien’s classic tale, The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.” A familiar Navajo prayer comes to mind: “May you walk in beauty.” Having just been pierced by unbearable beauty, I ponder the implications of this prayer.
Finally, my thoughts return to the closing lines from Michael Ventura’s passage about the soul not being human: “If only a human can become unafraid of the soul’s necessity to journey, then anything is possible. The soul is honored, and shares its beauty.”
Why does the gift of beauty move us so deeply, I wonder? The red disk of the sun rises out of the ocean, bringing with it an evocative response to my unspoken question: Beauty makes the soul feel at home. This simple, intuitive statement is then amplified by three subsequent insights, which float into my awareness just as the flight of pelicans had done moments before.
Beauty is empowering. Whenever we become mired in a sense of inadequacy, beauty reminds us that creativity is our birthright. For beauty is the hallmark of creativity–be it a stirring piece of music, a well-turned phrase, or these ponderously graceful pelicans, their wingtips now barely clearing the breakers.
Beauty, in other words, is a sweet, powerful force. Artists train themselves to be conduits for this flow. And in a deeper sense, each of us is an artist, whether we’re preparing a wholesome meal and setting it on the table for friends, or we’re planting flowers and shrubs along the driveway, or simply because we’re privileged to witness the unspeakable beauty of this day.
Beauty is an antidote for loneliness. Loneliness is an occupational hazard for most highly individuated humans. Many of us have probably felt, at one time or another, a vague sense of exile. Gradually (or perhaps all at once) the world turns bleak, barren, and inhospitable. This feeling can become chronic.
Yet tokens of caring abound. The person who sits down to that meal, for example, or who walks past the flowers on the driveway, is receiving a subliminal reminder that someone cares. These gifts of beauty are deeply therapeutic, for the giver as well as the receiver. They diminish the distances between us.
If beauty, moreover, is the harmonious interplay between the whole and its parts, then a startling awareness sometimes arises, a realization that even we humans are ultimately embraced by something greater than our separate, isolated selves.
Personal inclination will automatically translate such realizations into an appropriate form. This form may be aesthetic or ecological. Or it may be religious. “For heaven’s sake,” Tony Hillerman once remarked, “if God didn’t love us, why would he give us all this beauty.”
Beauty heals shame. Shame is the primordial blight upon the human psyche. Its taproot is firmly anchored in the fertile soil of our Judaeo-Christian blood myth. It is the first emotion alluded to in the Book of Genesis and is the direct prelude to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.
Shame seduces us into a subtle attitude of self-contempt. The attitude may slumber as a quiescent undercurrent, or be actively malignant. Yet each of us, in a profoundly mysterious way, is a carrier for this lethal virus of the human mind.
Shame and beauty, however, are fundamentally incompatible. Observing our reflection in one of the many “mirrors” that surround us, do we see a bad, inadequate, unworthy person? A member of a hopelessly flawed species? Or do we behold a beautiful creature?
Transformational journeys are undertaken in order to transform how we see ourselves, at the deepest levels of our being. As we begin to view ourselves in a new way, we will magically see others in a new way as well–other people, other species, the soul, the Earth.
Having paid for the gift of individuation with the high price of exile, we may now turn to transmuting the debilitating and often toxic residues of individuation into beauty.
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In the years since these insights were first received, we have come across two passages which further illuminate the intimate relationship between beauty and transformation. The first is from Albert Einstein, who lived to see his spectacular flights of the scientific imagination translated into weapons of mass destruction.
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
The final passage is from a Navajo ceremony. It elaborates the earlier-mentioned prayer, “May you walk in beauty.” The ceremonial words help me recollect the insights that were triggered by an early morning flight of pelicans–that beauty is empowering; that it is an antidote for loneliness; that it heals shame; and that it makes the soul feel at home.
In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud and rain,
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before and behind me,
With beauty below and above,
With beauty all around me,