Let Beauty Win
The same link appears in my social-media feed two dozen times in no time at all.
Barbed comments and needed correctives attend each share; each observer rightly identifies something repulsive in the article or analysis they trap, then release back into the atmosphere.
Attentive readers expose a joke that lands, but only as a sucker-punch; an op-ed that further divides and sub-divides the American people; video from a sermon shaped like a gavel.
As the measured and thoughtful reveal things for what they truly are, pure, holy light floods our common space, yet still my muscles tense. The well-intentioned stoop to weed the public garden of all that chokes out life. I nod in approval, then worry that we spend all our energy uprooting, with little left to sow beauty where pesky shoots once grew.
This scenario repeats itself nearly everyday, and it leaves me longing. Naive as ever, I envision a place where poetry outshines polemics, long reads absorb attentions shaved by hot takes, and hate-reading gives way to binging on beauty.
My own reaction owes more than a little to self-preservation. Even at their most searing, my opinions always bend back toward hope and softness; my pastor once said that, when agitated, I drop a “velvet hammer.”
My tastes—and my work—default to the lyrical, the idealistic. Friends re-post the same awful articles, then voice their craving for something better. I can’t help but recall all the times my words pointed to poetry, music, and the other beautiful, expressive branches that create a canopy over our lives. I want to ask them to save at least one dance for me.
But even after I wriggle free of my own vanity, something arrests me. Attention ranks among the greatest gifts God unboxes for us. Speaking us into being, he opens our eyes to follow birds and their flight paths; frees our imaginations to survey horizons of the possible; prompts our hands to cover our chests and keep time with the heartbeat which ordains life.
There is a reason the words “pay” and “attention” fit together. When we direct attention to people, places and moments, we make an investment. A mutual shaping happens. What we reward lives to meet another day; what we behold shapes how we behold.
The gift of attention comes with tough questions and forces us to sketch fine lines. Calling out those who deny truth and wholeness, we risk rewarding provocation. Listening to firebrands, if only to debate them, we extend conversations with people who love to hear themselves talk. What if, instead, we became so absorbed with goodness and beauty that the distasteful never found its foothold?
Here we face, and need to reject, a false choice. Beauty never asks us to close our eyes to injustice or stop our ears to hard truths. Beauty announces its presence in the fight for equity and healing; it never serves itself, but ministers to us, opening our eyes to its omnipresence. Even beauty which seems to exist for beauty’s sake heightens our senses and readies us to experience—and engage with—more of life.
In her new book Try Softer, Aundi Kolber unites cause and effect, the “hunt for beauty” and the subsequent ability to “pay attention.” Kolber underlines her point with a thought from poet John O’Donohue:
“Beauty isn’t all about just nice loveliness. ... Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming. So I think beauty, in that sense, is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”
O’Donohue is right: Beauty brings flesh to our bones. It never hides itself in our hearts for the sake of private ecstasy, but stretches inside-out, widening and deepening every part of our humanity.
The beauty we observe and share only primes us for more, expanding our expectations for the world we want to live in. Lasting beauty moves us, then moves us out the door to match the outside world and what’s happening inside.
The same part of me which swoons at the royal-blue melodies of late pianist Bill Evans recognizes the artistry in a handwritten protest sign. Somewhere deep inside, where my soul studies the prose of Molly McCully Brown, I also rejoice at evidence of wrongs righted. One type of beauty holds hands with the other; together they beckon me to stick close, to see what they’re up to.
Those who want to see God will see him everywhere: in the viral video of a little black girl leading a march or in the line breaks of an Ilya Kaminsky poem. All these things meet the test of Philippians 4: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise.
Let The Babylon Bee worry about itself. Look—if you must—just glance at that God-forsaken tweet making the rounds. But know there is no beauty there. Let those thoughts run their natural course; by walking past, you kick their very legs out from underneath.
Then lay all your attention down at the table of beauty and justice. For every link you wish you hadn’t clicked, share two examples of something better. Not as the sort of empty exercise we often run across, people sharing pictures of canyons on Facebook to avoid gnawing questions.
Instead, share the poem that changed the way you see rain. Give others a chance to steep in an essay that introduces another’s experience. Play the song which set your heart afire and sent you into the streets. Please turn it up. Charge every molecule of air around you with the life we all say we want, then watch as friends and neighbors respond out of enriched imaginations.
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