Beauty

The world abounds in beauty, if only we can appreciate it.

When I teach students about grammar, we discuss the distinction between concrete and abstract nouns.  In essence, a noun denoting something we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste is concrete–flowers, sunlight, pizza.  Abstract nouns, such as democracy and kindness, represent ideas.

Inevitably, the word beauty comes up, and students have a hard time agreeing on its classification.  Some students say that something beautiful can be seen, so beauty is concrete.  Others claim that our minds impose the idea of beauty on things that we find appealing; therefore, beauty is abstract.

Of course, the latter is indeed the case.  Margaret Wolfe Hungerton gave us in the late 1800’s our modern iteration of a sentiment that goes back to ancient Greece: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Regrettably, we can miss much of the beauty around us.  Our human weaknesses and distractions can obscure from us the sublimity of a bird in flight or the patient isolation of a bare, gray tree in winter.  The laughter of children and the smiles of strangers can meet poorly with minds afflicted with entropy or cynicism.

Worse, hearts unattuned to true beauty will settle for contrived, synthesized facsimiles–often viewed on screens of various sizes or blared through earbuds or subwoofers.  Overwhelming force crowds out timeless resonance; extravagant pandering overpowers quiet dignity; arrogance and lurid spectacle assassinate humility and innocence.  On a mass scale, a culture begins to favor entertainment over a genuine engagement with life. People soon mistake cleverness for genius and confuse manipulation with vision and direction.

I cite Abraham Maslow often in my posts and discussions.  His Hierarchy of Human Needs illustrates that after people meet their basic needs for safety and security, they seek experiences to deepen their humanity and elevate their understanding of their world and themselves.  Just below what Maslow called self-actualization is a level of needs related to aesthetics.  Human beings, in order to develop fully and in a healthy manner, need to develop an understanding of beauty and harmony in the world around them.  They must struggle not only to recognize what is beautiful, but also to accommodate the tension between grace and ill will, elegance and disorder, harmony and dissonance, good and evil.

So many of us, overwhelmed with the unnecessary intensity of our lives, will struggle to make sense of the world on this level.  Henry David Thoreau gives us valuable guidance: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”  But that so often seems easier said than done.

In the meantime, while our difficulties on this level of development do not necessarily imperil our lives or safety, we suffer in real terms, and we feel that suffering on profound levels.

So, today I offer my devout hope that we can all savor true beauty in our lives–whatever that may mean for each of us as individuals.  May the search be rewarding and glorious.

6 thoughts on “Beauty

  1. I doubt I will ever reach self-actualization, but I am really working on simplifying! Searching out and recognizing beauty in the most ordinary things makes life better.

  2. I am with Thoreau in “simplify!” and also wholeheartedly with you in knowing it’s easier said and done in the daily demands of life, often having to reprioritize (Thoreau, if I recall, didn’t like dusting because it was never “done” – no wonder Walden Pond beckoned so). Your words really bring me back to Keats, however: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” To me this speaks to qualities and essences far beyond material things or the external or physical – i.e., the superficial, as you eloquently describe in your “hearts unattuned to true beauty” paragraph. Most of all I love the hope in your closing lines, the reminder to seek true beauty each day – this is so much a part of my daily search for “awe” – for the transformative power is real. The world DOES abound in beauty! It’s all there for the savoring, if we only will.

    1. Thank you for helping me believe I could get those points across. So interesting that you bring up the word “awe.” It came to my mind when I composed the poem that I will post on Friday. I truly appreciate your comments on my posts.

  3. This made me think of the Costa and Kallick’s 16 habits of mind. One of the habits that is a personal area of growth is “responding with wonderment and awe”. As you write, distractions and cynicism can get in the way.

  4. Your post is so timely and so important. You remind us that, “Stop and smell the roses,” has meaning well beyond five little words. I recently read an article about the importance of allowing yourself to be awed by the everyday. And when we bring that sense recognizing beauty, and recognizing it first, before finding its opposite, well that’s when we can begin to make big differences.

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