The Obligation of Beauty

It took me over a quarter of a century to realize beauty is not something frivolous. We need beauty in our life. The truth still takes my breath away. With no particular aesthetic gift or impulse, I was for much of my life satisfied if my purchases were functional. They didn’t have to be pretty. And so neither did I, because my brain got me around. It was my mind, not my appearance, that helped me achieve in school and life and build relationships. I now look with patience upon the black-and-white assertions we draw in youth.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert borrows from The Italians by Luigi Barzini to tease out “why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. [His answers] have to do with a sad Italian history of corruption…and dominators…which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted…one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses. This is why Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas…actors, cooks, tailors…In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business – not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into rhetoric and plot.”

Gilbert goes on to describe how deep in the ruins of her marriage, she began to mend her soul by reading aloud Italian words out of a dictionary. I can relate. After my body broke down from stress and overwork in my 20s, I noticed the flowers for the first time. I had never seen them grace the cities I lived in. Too busy with things that mattered like studies and work, I had never looked. But in my frailty, I was ravished by their beauty, the force of their color. My spirit had fractured open, worn and thirsty for something beyond the dictates of duty. Eager for a song, not just the beat of the clock I raced. I didn’t understand why I took so hungrily to the flowers I had by practice dismissed. It took me years to realize that beauty is healing. And so the lyrical, sexy Italian sounds out of her mouth brought Gilbert healing joy. She says “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity…You were given life; it is your duty…to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

I would take it a step further. Beauty is the very fabric of our world. Yes, we’ve screwed things up with crime, war, destruction, and the abuse of our natural resources. But beauty dances in the pageantry of the sunset and of the cosmos (who said Jupiter had to be so beautiful??), in the languages of men. Some days the California sky is so magnificent, the clouds coiffed with a panache which in a painting would look overdone, too perfect. Beauty wasn’t an artful afterthought to this world. She obligated herself upon us. Beauty isn’t something to find. She is the substance of this earth and wants to show her imprint in our life.

How does this belated dawning translate in my life? While I remain impressed with women who match head to toe, my regard for them is largely what I hold for curious lab specimens. I was taken by my mother-in-law’s response when I thanked her for a recent gift card saying I’ll get something to look pretty in for her son. “Get something nice to be pretty for yourself. Life is short. Someday, you will realize that you don’t have much time left over to enjoy what you have now.” I was reminded that while vanity is one thing, self-respect is another and taking care with my appearance is good for the soul. The series on beauty that’s around the corner will take us through the body, spirit, femininity, relationships, love, memory, pain, suffering, art. Please welcome the guests who have worked hard over their stories and are still bleeding from the edits – because beauty is worth it.

233 thoughts on “The Obligation of Beauty

  1. Ah, Diana! Beauty, one of my very favourite topics. Unlike you, I have always been a beauty hunter. The beauty of our natural world has always restored me. I attend to my own appearance as well, but not overly. I rarely wear makeup, and my hair, while regularly cut is usually finger styled. Music, art, food, and words in their various forms constantly sustain and inspire me. In fact, it’s all I write about when I get down to it! Looking forward to your series xo

  2. We downsized last summer from two houses in woods on a lake to an apartment. The saving grace has been that the apartment looks out into woods and thanks to a neighbor’s bird feeder, each morning when I get my coffee and sit at my computer to see photos of grandchildren and posts from friends, I am looking out at evergreens literally full of bright red cardinals. It never fails to lift my spirits and remind me who created our many forms of beauty. Looking forward to more on beauty.

  3. Reblogged this on kendunning and commented:
    I feel privileged reblogging this wonderful message on healing and self-care. It is a beautiful message. I would, however, discount the saying that “Life is short.” If we think that won’t our mind make it so? We need to think about life as we want it to be, and accept it as it is because only by doing so can we make the connections to begin reshaping it toward something more ideal.

  4. In my humble view, whoever coined the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was full of wisdom… and I couldn’t agree more that beauty is everywhere for us to behold… It basically comes down to our choice to seek out and be aware of beauty or not… a bit like the happiness choice!

  5. I come from a practical family–at least we want to be practical until we get sidetracked by beauty. I feel blessed in that even in poverty or horrible circumstances we’ve always enjoyed the beauty and humor of life. Whenever I get too practical I notice my mood sinking and my irritation level rising.

    I really enjoyed this post.

    Thanks!

    • “Whenever I get too practical I notice my mood sinking and my irritation level rising.” Find this interesting, A. (Wanna call you Addy all of a sudden. I like abbreviating. Always racing the clock! HEH! But you’re not an Addy. :P) Why do we tend to categorize beauty away from the practical? It doesn’t have to be that way. I suppose it’s what I said, that I myself chose the functional over the pretty in my purchases. The first thing to take the hit in school budget cuts are also the arts. Sure, bc we kids need the “life skills” of writing and adding. But watch those kids grow up bereft of the fuller range of visual and creative arts and see how competent (or happy) they are.Appreciate the thoughtful share, my friend.

      • Yes, I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive either. I think in my case I wanted to become a person who didn’t need beautiful things–as if leading a spartan life led to saintliness. I do find beauty in simple things and useful things–but even that I used to deny myself for some reason. But after many years I finally allowed myself the beautiful bowl vs. the disgusting old tupperware. 🙂 I could look out at the world and see beauty–but I thought owning any of it was out of range for me. We are very confusing creatures.

        My best friends have always called me “Age.”

      • Ha ha ha. Age is short. I can use that in abbreviating your name. LOL.

        I was JUST like you in this regard, tupperware and everything (until a slow recently). I mentioned last yr in the series on the guilt that I used to not salt my food, feeling guilt for the flavor. I just said to Susan a bit higher up in this thread that asceticism is the other face of vanity. Same pride. “I wanted to become a person who didn’t need beautiful things” Interesting.

    • Beauty not only comes from the Creator. He IS beauty. The Fall ushered in ugliness and decay, but redemption is the reversal of the effects of the Fall. We see images of Eden everywhere (as in the parts of nature I described), though imperfectly. Reversal of the fall means…back to beauty. =)

  6. I think enjoying and appreciating beauty is pragmatic because it enriches our lives, D. Otherwise we may as well be ants, scurrying about our daily lives bringing dead bugs back to the nest. –Curt

  7. I agree. Sometimes even the most beautiful things in the world are overlooked, just because we’re worrying about practicality. It’s great to just stop by and smell the flowers, don’t you think?

    And the comment about schools cutting art budgets, this is also very true in my experience. There was never really any real financial support for art students during my time at high school (performing and visual arts, academic) though every overseas sports trip was fully funded. That just didn’t make sense to me.

    But still, it’s always better to realize late, than never at all. I too, was once someone steeped with stress, sickness and the practicality syndrome. I guess it takes some kind of misfortune to make you open your eyes and truly appreciate the beauty we’ve almost forgotten.

    • “some kind of misfortune to make you open your eyes and truly appreciate the beauty we’ve almost forgotten.” Yes, because the experience of beauty is the experience of truly living.

  8. As you say, beauty enriches our lives. That taking care of our appearance is good for the soul is a profound observation. Abuse victims recognize this without ever articulating it. Many will destroy or distort their appearance. Feeling ugly, feeling dirty, feeling worthless they will unconsciously seek to project that image. Beauty can be a way to begin healing.

  9. Diana, easy to sense that there will be so much more to beauty here than what we see while exposing the value in the beauty that is visible. I look forward to finding out more.

  10. The most beautiful thing about beauty is…its in the eye of the beholder and so everyone is beautiful to someone. I also agree you can still look like a million bucks without spending too much money these days. For me, I always feel better inside and out when I make a little effort Diana.

  11. Yes, without beauty the world is a hollow experience. I’m often struck at how beauty demands time, and so we give it a pass as if it were “frivolous”. Or we settle for fads, which sound so much like fades… the very opposite of beauty. Great idea for a series.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Allen. Love the observation on time. Anything worthwhile takes time. I’ve been very busy w/ the series underway. Been an amazing view from here, I have to say, for all the perspectives that lend their light upon A Holistic Journey.

      Blessings,
      D

  12. You have given me a lot to ponder on this lovely almost spring day. The theory about the Italians is particulary interesting. “In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. ” That is so true. And pure beauty is something that can never be corrupted.

  13. Yes, beauty does dance in the “pageantry of the sunset”, what Robinson Jeffers calls “divinely superfluous beauty,” but I’m with Gilbert that we have to work at finding something beautiful in life. Some of the most beautiful sunsets ever, appeared around the world following the deadly volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, in which 40,000 people were killed. It would have been hard to see the beauty in the sky as the bodies of the dead washed up along the shoreline. BTW, your mother-in-law was wise.

    • I disagree with Jeffers that beauty is superfluous, though it be divinely so. What I was saying – which I’m not thinking you didn’t get – is that beauty is divinely purposed. At every level (fabric, substance, imprint). From the secret places of the flower beneath the flamboyance and flirtation of her petals, the wild dance of the wind, to the capacities of man and the elegance of reason. And so when I had dismissed flowers for “more important” things like the demands of ambition, I wasn’t really living.

      That is remarkable about the sunset in the volcanic aftermath, MG. But why am I not surprised. And yes, my MIL is one amazing woman, the classiest person I know (inside and out). I have a friend who said something similar to me. I think I’m supposed to pay attention. =)

  14. Actually I think both Jeffers and you are in agreement, it is I who disagree with both of you. By “divinely superfluous beauty,” Jeffers meant that such beauty as he finds in nature is like a superfluous or extravagant gift, something that can only be explained by a creator outside of , or greater than nature.

    Incidentally, I should have added to my comment that I thought this was a fine post, maybe one of your best. And your writing…your writing:

    “From the secret places of the flower beneath the flamboyance and flirtation of her petals, the wild dance of the wind, to the capacities of man and the elegance of reason.”

    • From the looks of his bio, it doesn’t seem Jeffers and I are cohorts in our theology if he’d even had one. He, for instance, believed every beauty demands a tragedy. I think the glorious bleeding in the sky that attended the aftermath of those eruptions that we call the sunset shows it goes the other way around. As to the praise, well..it’s an honor coming from such a refined literary palate. Thank you.

    • I wasn’t writing him off. =) Was simply saying he and I have less in common than you might think. Your post has been open on my screen the last several hours but the comment board might as well be across the ocean, time against me in its tides. Will be over when I can.

  15. Glad to be back here Diana. Beautiful pertaining to life is not vanity. There is much beauty to be seen in life, even if we may have to sift through things sometimes to find it. I look forward to this upcoming series. 🙂

    • Thanks, Deb. Even if it’s words – at worst – of life we draw from the wellspring of our heart. We’re knee-deep in the series. And I’m so glad you pulled through these last few months! A trooper.

  16. Beautiful writing, and insightful. I loved the segment relating to the Italian tolerance of tyrants, versus their intolerance of incompetent artists, cooks… Wow!

  17. A beautiful story about beauty! I’ve always been attracted by beauty – the beauty of words, colours, music, the sky, the sea and nature. It makes my spirits soar and my soul sing!

  18. Pingback: When You Love Your Body | A Holistic Journey

  19. What a great post D. I had no idea that the Italians were thought like that throughout history.
    Do you know the singer, Steve Bell? He wrote a song called, “Why do we hunger for beauty?” Check it out. I really like what he says too.

  20. This is a unique and a wonderful perspective which tells a truth that is usually ignored. As John Keats said, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that only merit is important and beauty is just superficial, deep down in hearts we do value beauty and it does last forever. There are so many lines in this post that moved me that I find it difficult to find my favorite. Your story of healing through beauty is also relatable. So many times it happens that after a long and rough day when we sit and gaze at the stars, the beautiful sky simply makes the whole day worthwhile! Indeed, in a world full of negativity, beauty is our only savior. 🙂 So would just thank you for sharing this. You definitely opened some closed minds. 🙂

    • “Thank you” seems to fall short under such heartfelt reflection and affirmation, Prateek. i appreciate every word. And yes, I loved the Keats. Thanks so much for connecting so warmly.

      Diana

  21. The obligation of beauty. A fantastic title, and something we owe to ourselves and to those around us. If we understand and appreciate beauty, we begin to understand and appreciate life (and it infects those around us as well). I love how you frame this not around vanity, but about need. The need to aspire (and thus the need to inspire).

    You say it well “We need beauty in our life.” and the anecdote from your mother-in-law mentioning you need to “Get something nice to be pretty for yourself. Life is short. Someday, you will realize that you don’t have much time left over to enjoy what you have now.” Is brilliant as well. I would have to hug someone if they said such words to me as I believe (and from experience) that we put things off for tomorrow (e.g. beauty can wait), when it never has to be saved or stored like it is a valuable/rare commodity. It is what we make it to be.

    It took me a little time to finish this post, as I keep trying to finish it…but then I would get to the photograph and become mesmerized 🙂 Cheers ~ and thank you very much ~ wish you an incredible week.

    • I was quite moved by the way you put your reflections to us, Randy, until I got to:

      “It took me a little time to finish this post…but then I would get to the photograph and become mesmerized”

      LOL!!!! But you know what? I LOVE THAT. You bring something to the attention of artists, the vanity you mentioned. Is it possible to enjoy, even relish – or be proud of one’s work – without vanity? I think in keeping w/ the post, it is not only possible but obligatory in our calling. If we don’t feel that way about what we capture on canvas or screen, how can we expect or hope it’ll touch anyone else?

      “If we understand and appreciate beauty, we begin to understand and appreciate life”. EXACTLY. I began to heal at the sight of those flowers because I began to live. I love the rest of your thoughts on seizing all we can of beauty today. High five: you captured with your magic eye and camera what I expressed with words.

      D.

  22. And I think, also – it is all around (beauty) waiting for our attention. Sometimes, when I’m down and cranky, I do a ‘beauty walk’ – this doesn’t necessarily need to be a walk in an obviously beautiful place like the wild wild – it means, I have to seek out something beautiful, and walk towards it, noticing its beauty, then as I pass it, let my eye light on the next beauty, and so on. Now, the day I invented my ‘beauty walk’ it was because i was cross, someone’s carelessness meant that I had to do a really dull 20 minute walk to get to the sorting office to pick something work related up. And a walk along a main road is not much fun. So, I started with the easy bit, through my local beautiful, park where there is always lots to find beauty in, skies, ponds, trees, gracious sweeps of floral beds, moving onto mothers with little ones taking delight in the running free, excited dogs, friends relating warmly to each other etc – and by the time I was out of the park and into that dull main road – well, there was moulding and scrollwork on iron railings, interesting detail on roofs, someone wearing a coat of stunning colour – and by this time, I must have been walking with a smile on my face, because suddenly strangers were smiling at me, beautiful smiles. What a fabulous walk!

  23. Beautiful post D. Sometimes when I’m in those reflective “why am I here moods” I look around me and am so in awe of all the beauty around me it takes my breath away. The song My Redeemer Lives by Nicole C. Mullen reminds me of where beauty originated.

  24. What a BEAUTIFULLY written article 🙂 I can relate to how you said that in your 20’s the beauty of the flowers was a source of peace and tranquility for you because nature is the one thing in my life that calms me the most. What a beautiful world we live in ❤

  25. I can totally relate to how illness has a way of giving us an appreciation for the beauty around us. I’ve lost a lot of things and people in my life. I still have my eyesight. I love to look at things as if I’m seeing them for the first time. I love to create beautiful images. My idea might not be another person’s idea of what is beautiful. Taking time to notice everything takes me out of my mind’s pointless ramblings and into a more peaceful state.

  26. My God, girl. You are an incredibly gifted writer!! Please write more!

    Eat, Pray,Love had a profound influence on me. I LOVED the part that you quoted. In fact so much, that when I retire snd resettle in a warmer climate, going to Italy is first on my list. I want to indulge a few weeks at least, where pleasure, creativity, and beauty are what’s important. I think, that coming out of s long abusive marriage and reading that book allowed me to realize that THAT could fill my life, if I chose. Thank you thank you for articulating it so eloquently. (With a little help from Liz! ).

    • Getting chills. Wow, Liz. Been quite a journey for you. It is amazing how we can influence one another through the written word, isn’t it? I so hope you get to Italy!! =) We can fill our life with beauty – inside and out. I hope you can replace what’s been toxic to your spirit and body with what is healing. Thanks so much for the follow and the encouragement. So glad to connect.

      Diana

      • Very happy myself. I’ve been out a long time and I have a wonderful life. Thank you for your good wishes. BTW, do you follow Liz in FB? She has responded a number of times to comments I made on her posts, and OMG, I was at wor practically screaming “Liz Gilbert answers me!!!!” She’s very cool… So are you…

      • Ha ha ha. So sweet. Now THAT is neat, that she’ll respond on FB. I actually had spotted a number of blips in her books that needed rewording and had wished I’d flagged each one to contact her editor with (really the editor’s responsibility). I hardly FB. Thanks so much for connecting with me.

        Blessings,
        Diana

  27. Yes life is short indeed and we need to take every moment we can to appreciate the natural beauty around us rather than looking at people as role models. We will always be disappointed if we take the latter approach to experiencing beauty though I concede there are rare occasions when people can show beauty through their concern for others. I guess we could beat up on the Italians but I don’t see much difference between them and any other nation today. Corruption rules.

  28. “I was reminded that while vanity is one thing, self-respect is another and taking care with my appearance is good for the soul.” A thorough examination of one’s self is important. And at the end of it all, if we can only see our faults, acknowledge those others see in us, and make amends, then and only then with a good conscience we may be able to see and appreciate the beauty in people and in things around us and beyond; that we either ignored and or critized previously. etc.

    Thus with this new personality, one would act amicable to discipline and earn respect, even as she respects herself, pay much attention as to how she carry herself when is private, as well as when she is in the eyes of the public.

    We can make a difference if we try, starting first as per individual.

  29. My stance on beauty is reminiscent of a song called “Don’t Blink (Or We May Miss It)” by Nodes of Ranvier:

    The very idea of beauty died so long ago
    But sometimes I catch a glimpse
    At the call of your name or the touch of another’s hand
    I see this place as Adam once saw Eden
    (and I see people as Adam once saw Eve)
    But gone is the garden of perfection
    (The dirt we’ve become is the dirt we came from)

  30. Beautiful subject!

    There are many forms of beauty – to me, harmony, love, peace, renewal, courage, strength, wisdom, & more — all of it is beautiful.

  31. Redeeming Luv greetings to you, HW,

    Your post on “Beauty” is a very interesting and inspiring one. Thanks for sharing.
    I am also moved by this truth, ” …You were given life; it is your duty…to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

    May God richly bless you.

    Redeeming Luv

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