by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
The saying goes that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What is beautiful to one person might very well do nothing for another. It might be hard to find a person who doesn’t see beauty in a colorful sunset, but what if that sunset were highlighted by swooping bats? Some people would find that more beautiful, some people less. (Me, I’m firmly in the Bats Are Beautiful camp.) You might find nothing more lovely to all of your senses than a perfectly ripe banana, but you will never convince me to share that opinion. Ick.
What we find beautiful depends largely on our associations with it—our history and our loves and our fears. Which means that seeing things as beautiful isn’t something that just happens because some things are beautiful and some things aren’t. Seeing beauty is something we learn, something we practice. It’s a skill that you can develop. Rev. Joe Cleveland, minister of our church in Saratoga Springs, New York, tells this story about practicing beauty when he was a child:
In the house where I grew up, there is a big window—a sliding glass door, really—that looks out on the backyard. Out behind our house was a kind of clearing with trees to both sides. We had a bird feeder out there in the clearing and my mom made sure that it was filled with birdseed. Next to that big window that looked out at the trees and the clearing and the bird feeder, my mom always kept bird books and a pair of binoculars.
I don’t know how much time I spent looking out that window at the birds. We’d spot a bird and then look it up and figure out what it was. And I would even just page through those guidebooks sometimes, looking at the birds and the amazing pictures of them. Fascinating and beautiful!
I saw more beautiful birds out of that back window than I would have otherwise because my mom helped make sure that we were prepared to see them. I knew the binoculars and bird books were there and so sometimes, even when I hadn’t noticed some bird flying by, I would pick them up anyway. I would practice using them. I would practice how to focus them. And I just got comfortable with how they felt in my hands and what it felt like to hold them to my face.
And there was never a time when I used those binoculars that I didn’t see something fascinating, especially if I looked long enough. Using the binoculars helped me to focus my attention, which is often hard for me to do. And they helped me see things that I couldn’t see without them.
Some beauty is easy to see. But I think there is a lot of beauty that I wouldn't notice if I didn't practice looking for it. There is beauty in unexpected places. And the more I practice looking for beauty, the more I am ready for it, and the more beauty I find in my world.
“The more I practice looking for beauty, the more I am ready for it, and the more beauty I find in my world.” That’s a powerful statement. It’s easy to go through life wanting the world to provide us with beauty and pleasure, but the responsibility might rest not with the world, but rather with us. The world is throwing out amazing beauty across each and every square inch. Have you ever seen magnified pictures of sand or leaves or skin? The patterns of bark on a tree or the smell of cut grass or the rhythmic sound of a sprinkler can be art and music. But it can take practice and effort to see and appreciate that beauty rather than simply ignoring it as the background of our days.
I got up at 5:00 to see the full moon shining rust-red in sky—a total lunar eclipse. I am not a fan of 5am. I could have given it a miss. (OK, I almost did. I’m really not a morning person.) But I got up and stood on the driveway in my pajamas in the dark because it seemed like it would be a shame to let that beauty just slip by. If the solar system was going to line up the sun and the earth and the moon to create such a spectacle, I felt like it would be a little ungrateful to not bother to see it.
There are plenty of ads out there in the world demanding that you should work and pay and even suffer to be beautiful, but I suspect that we would be better off with messages that instead pushed us to make an effort to be witnesses to beauty.
A song in our hymnbook, based on a poem by Sara Teasdale, begins: “Life has loveliness to sell.” Yes, we buy beauty with the currency of our attention, our openness, our willingness to be moved. We buy life’s loveliness when we look beyond our assumptions to see the beauty in the people around us that comes from the inside rather than the surface. We buy life’s loveliness when we stop to look, or listen or smell, or when we create beauty through art or music or dance or cooking or poetry or a welcoming smile. We buy life’s loveliness through deliberate practice, through a determination that, in Annie Dillard’s words, “creation need not play to an empty house.”