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 from behind 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 suddenly come into our field of vision.
The beauty of the moment strikes us with an intensity edging on anguish. Joyce feels her fuses being blown, as though only a small dose of such high-voltage beauty can be safely taken in before some self-protective mechanism goes into shut-down mode.
Watching the pelicans recede down the beach ahead of us, I recall C.S. Lewis’ tribute to The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.” Then a familiar Navajo prayer comes to mind: “May you walk in beauty.” But having just been pierced by unbearable beauty, I ponder the implications of this prayer.
Finally my thoughts turn to Michael Ventura’s challenging observation about the relationship between the human and the soul. “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.”
We continue walking down the beach. Why does the gift of beauty, I wonder, move us so deeply? As the red disk of the sun rises out of the ocean to our left, I get an unexpected response to this unspoken question: Beauty makes the soul feel at home.
Three related insights then drift into the field of my awareness, like another flight of pelicans.
Beauty is empowering. Whenever we become mired in feelings of inadequacy, beauty reminds us that creativity is our birthright. Beauty is the hallmark of creativity, be it a stirring piece of music, a well-turned phrase, or those 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. In a deeper sense, each of us is an artist, whether we’re setting a wholesome meal on the table for friends, or planting flowers along the driveway, or simply witnessing the unspeakable beauty of this day.
Beauty is an antidote for loneliness. Loneliness is an occupational hazard for highly individuated humans. Most 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 those flowers on the driveway, receives a subliminal reminder that someone cares. These gifts of beauty, moreover, are therapeutic for the giver as well as the receiver. They diminish the distances between us.
If beauty is the harmonious interplay between the whole and its parts, then a startling awareness sometimes arises; a realization that all humans are ultimately embraced by something greater than our separate, isolated selves.
Personal inclination automatically translates such a realization into an appropriate form, which may be aesthetic, ecological, or 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’s the first emotion mentioned in the Book of Genesis and the immediate prelude to Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden.
Shame seduces us into subtle attitudes of self-contempt. It can slumber as a quiescent undercurrent, or be actively malignant. Yet in some mysterious way, most of us become carriers for this lethal virus of the human mind.
Shame and beauty, though, are incompatible. When we observe our reflection in one of the numerous “mirrors” that surround us, what do we see? A bad, inadequate, and/or unworthy person? A member of a hopelessly flawed species? Or a beautiful creature?
Transformational journeys change how we see ourselves. As this happens, we 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 then turn to transmuting the debilitating and often toxic residues of individuation into beauty.
* * *
In the years since these insights were first received during an early morning walk along the beach, I have come upon two passages that further illuminate the intimate relationship between transformation and beauty. 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 second passage is from a Navajo ceremony. The ceremonial words call to mind the insights triggered by an early morning flight of pelicans: that beauty is empowering; that it’s an antidote for loneliness; that it heals shame. Beauty, in other words, 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,