The Gift of Natural Beauty
I sat in the public library facing a wall that is all windows. The early spring sky was a dull unbroken gray. But as I looked up, I saw the bare branches of an oak tree. The thicker branches were black against the sky, irregular as mountain roads. The smaller branches zigzagged between the larger. Something in the stark image struck me. “Beautiful,” I thought to myself.
Natural sights of all sorts arrest our attention, don’t they? An orange sun setting against rose hued clouds; snow capped mountains; seagull wings thin-tipped against the sky. Thanks to the Hubble telescope, we admire spiral galaxies, ringed planets, and light-years wide nebulae. “Beautiful,” we think to ourselves, and something warm and good happens inside us.
These pictures of natural beauty are gifts to us that need no explanation. Such sights brighten our spirits when we are down. They shrink our worries and feed our optimism. Let’s enjoy them often.
Beauty Made by Humans
There is a deeper beauty too.
For an example, let’s think about what is happening when we view a beautiful cathedral. Certainly, we admire its tall spires, its sweeping arches and stained glass windows, but aren’t we connecting with something more? When I look at the majestic building, perhaps I am nostalgic for the time when “Christendom” reigned. Maybe I once enjoyed hearing a choir sing in a cathedral. I might feel connected to the realm of religion or the history of church architecture. My mind makes so many connections that most of them remain unconscious. What remains for me is the feeling of awe.
Just as complex is the beauty a gardener sees in his lush garden, or the beauty a carpenter sees upon completing the frame for a house. The gardener may be imagining a past time of sharing fresh vegetables with a friend. The carpenter may be subconsciously drawing on an earlier experience with a happy new home owner
In sights as different as a cathedral and a back yard garden, we connect with rich realities that exist because we humans exist. This is beauty made by humans: the object is made by humans; the story behind it is made by humans; my personal experience of beauty is made by a human—me. We draw from the human past and from personal experience—as well as our pleasure with the physical appearance, and we find beauty.
If we press the idea of beauty a little farther, we can see an even deeper beauty.
We have all seen television advertisements that picture beautiful children in settings of desperate poverty. If we are truly watching, we experience more than we want to. We are swept with a mix of sadness, warmth, hope, and maybe even guilt. Another image we have all seen is that of war veterans being fitted with modern prostheses. The sight stirs within us admiration and hope, as well as sympathy. Our complex reactions to such images can leave us feeling confused too.
Surely these images could also be called beautiful. But why?
Let’s think for a moment about a couple of very familiar art forms. Doesn’t it seem that music we call “beautiful” always contains a sad or painful element? Don’t the most beautiful movies contain troubling episodes? I think that we see beauty in these songs and movies because we see honesty. Life is neither simple nor easy. It’s a mixture of successes and failures, happiness and sorrow, moments of illumination and moments of terrible darkness. Images from real life that capture such complexity are beautiful too.
Because we are human, we sense our common journey in the honest images of the needy child and the amputee athlete. The pain of those pictured is our pain. Their joy is our joy. We see the beauty in the other because it is the same beauty that lives deep within us.
Reach for Beauty
Beauty is the fruit of the human experience. Let us use it to make each of our lives fruitful:
- Take time to enjoy the beauty of nature. It is the simplest recipe for a brighter life.
- Contemplate the beauty in images created by human minds and human hands. They remind us of our many connections to the human story.
- Reach out to the beauty in the personal journeys of others. You will also be reaching out the beauty that is already within you.
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