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. It obligated itself upon us. Beauty isn’t something to find. It is the substance of this earth.

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. An aesthete! I love the power of beauty. I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere now unless the setting is beautiful. Music and art and literature and poetry uplift me. Nice post. 🙂

    • Cindy, from your time in Europe (though I understand it’s a diverse continent), do you agree with the popular opinion that beauty is more celebrated and honored there than in the States? Or that it is simply more beautiful there? Although there are different ways something can be beautiful.

      • Oh, I think architecture and culture is so old that it has a celebrated appeal while the U.S. is newer at adapting European values. I think the U.S. is incredibly beautiful. Not all its cities, but the landscape and a lot of towns and cities have their charm. Take Virginia or Vermont for example. The two prettiest states in the union and just as lovely as France or England.

  2. Thank you for the poignant reminder of Beauty’s transcendent impact on my soul. My present world may not allow for all the Beauty I desire but I an gently grasp the small wonders that life offers me. Again, that you.

  3. Ahh, you share such precious and beautiful words with us. It is so sad when we do not take the time to focus on the beauty in the world, invest in a bit of mindfulness in how marvelous it all is. That’s kind of like receiving a gift and just casually tossing it aside because we’re too busy.

    It’s kind of amusing, I am Italian and I’m starting to think that attitude may well be woven deeply into our DNA. Never mind that I am 3rd generation and have never been to Italy, this is still so very true, “Because the world is so corrupted…one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses.” My father used to tell me that sometimes you just have to sit back and watch the world go by. Stop trying to fix it, it’s too corrupt, is what he meant.

  4. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it’s the last exit before god or despair, I think. Yes, one own sense of self is one key to beauty but always be mindful of the mirror’s answer. Great post.

  5. Each morning and each evening I go out back on the deck.. I see the sky, trees and flowers. I can tell you where the squirrels are building their winter home. The path geese will take and what tree that woodpecker is knocking on. Where Venus and Mars are and Orions Belt. I do all this because there was a time in my life when I didn’t notice any of this… this beauty that is there for the looking, the tasting and it took a dramatic event to shake me up and then I saw for the first time the horizon where the earth seems to marry the sky. It can be cloudy, raining, clear or snowing; it is all breathtaking and I wonder how did I ever live on this earth and not notice this… perhaps I really wasn’t living. A beautiful post…thank you!

    • “perhaps I really wasn’t living.” This is EXACTLY what I meant. Didn’t have time to add it, rushing out late for an appointment. You completely understand. =) I am so glad to know you take time with your ritual of sacred seeing. Thx for sharing.

  6. I like this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert: “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.”
    Thank you for this beautiful post, Diana. I am going to reblog it on auntyuta.

  7. Reblogged this on auntyuta and commented:
    I like this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert: “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.”
    Thank you for this beautiful post, Diana. I am going to reblog it on auntyuta

  8. I cycle to work and love looking out for moments of beauty and signs that the seasons are changing. The ride to work clears my mind and prepares me for the shift ahead, but the ride home is a chance to think about relax and enjoy the view. Thank you for a wonderful post. I was reminded of the William Morris quote something about only having beautiful and useful items in your home.

  9. This was beautiful and so relevant. I am forever in awe of the sky–sunrise, sunset, cloud formations. Always pointing out the beauty of the sky–so not to be missed. Look up and live, people, and don’t complain when it is cloudy and overcast. You missed the beauty!
    Your posts are something else (in a very good way), but your last lines are always the kickers–“…still bleeding from the edits.” You are so wickedly funny, Diana. I await their stories.

  10. I watched an amazing youtube video today in which EG spoke at the Sidney opera House with friend, musician and memoir writer, Rayya Elias. Highly recommend. It’s on her FB page (also recommend liking as it provides daily inspiration.)

    Love,
    E

    • For all the books of hers I’ve been quoting, I’m actually not a complete EG fan. *grin* For one thing, was quite disappointed with the writing in a few spots – esp in Eat, P, L. CAN ask for excellence, can’t I – esp of a bestseller? I also don’t share her worldview. But I’ve enjoyed her and her journey has made me look at my own. Thanks. I may chk out the vid when time allows. (Looks hopefully up at ceiling.) Always so nice hearing from you, E.

      Xx
      D.

  11. What a wonderful post, Diana! Yes, I do believe beauty is healing.

    When my husband and I spend a few days at the ocean, we get up very early to watch the sun as it rises above the ocean. It never fails to invigorate me, to fill me with hope and enthusiasm. I find myself saying a thankful prayer to He who created such beauty and who salves my soul with it.

    There is beauty to be found in nature’s canvas, but there is also the beauty we see in the bright, happy eyes of children; the smile of an ageing mother; the touch of a lover or friend – the touch that says we are not alone.

    So much beauty surrounds us. We should thank God when He gifts us with the ability to see it. 🙂

    • Ditto on it all, esp all the smaller, quiet places we see beauty in one another. =) I can picture you there with your loving hubby. Just wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing, K.

      Love,
      D.

  12. Thank you Diana for putting is so eloquently. Yes, we (and I) need beauty. I hadn’t thought of beauty as what holds it all together, but why not! I have certainly been profoundly touched by the beauty of a sunset, a blooming flower, a person and nature in her many outfits. 🙂
    I look forward to this series.

  13. Diana, this couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I am exactly in this place myself right now: “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.” Your reminder (penned in the exquisite way with words that you have) that beauty is healing, and your sharing of Elizabeth’s words too, is such a timely reminder…..thank you so much 🙂

    • CC. CC!! I love you. =) I love how you surface when you do. I feel your heart in every comment. Sad to hear you relate to that difficult part of my journey. But the lesson from Beauty was one I learned too slowly; I am so glad you can enjoy it faster, ready for the taking. =) I’ve discovered beauty IS living. I took so hungrily to those flowers because I was learning how to live all over again. When a woman shared how beat up her spirit was from unjust attacks at work two yrs ago, I encouraged her to go look at something beautiful. She enjoyed her garden. =)

      Thanks for sharing with me.
      Love n pryrs,
      D.

  14. My children attend a Steiner school and I have recently undertaken some study in anthroposophy as I find Rudolf Steiner was an amazing human. Your comments on beauty have a deep meaning for me as of recent times because of his work on this aspect which resonated with me…
    An intro to one of his lectures: “Rudolf Steiner stated that the primary function of education is to exercise the students’ faculties of thinking, feeling and willing. These basic human qualities manifest in civilization as the “eternal verities” of truth, beauty and goodness, and these in turn in science, art and religion.”

  15. I was almost 40 when I watched my very first sunset. It was during a visit to my very first beach. Growing up in a city with buildings in the place of nature, the sun always disappeared behind a building. It was so amazing to see it sink into a lake. From that day on, I noticed beauty on a whole different level. This piece is a reminder.

    • I refuse to see the movie. LOL. I just won’t abide the Hollywood version of such a thoughtful work, although I wasn’t too impressed with the book given that it made bestseller. She did a far better job artistically in the fiction The Signature of All Things but I could see why EPL had mass appeal. =) Thx for the good word on this post. I appreciate your staying close, Y. Very sweet.

      Diana

      • I like to read books before watching a movie, but having two boys, the only way I can get them to take a nap is if I put on a movie they find boring. So when I need a mental break, I rent a movie for myself. Lol I have to say, the movie is great. Problem is that my eldest son now like it because he wants to go to Bali and Italy. Thank you for the good reads 😦

  16. How moving and thought-provoking in multiple ways. I recently have been taken aback by the pleasure I take in beauty. I get lost in color. Pleasure and a degree of guilt are frequent companions for me, in various ways. My acceptance of my own beauty, both physically and spiritually, is a continuing journey. I’ve had to recognize, cyclically throughout my life, some of the distortions behind my habit of neglecting my appearance and letting myself feel good about taking pride in what I wear, how I wear my hair, etc. All this to say your words have resonated and give me a lot to drink in. A lovely post 🙂

    • Awesome, AL. You happen to bring up the facets of this gem called beauty that we will be exploring this wk (starting tmrw). I totally get you on the guilt. I am talented at it. =) The writer I quoted went on to quote a nun she met. I will paraphrase: guilt is just a lie that you’ve made moral progress. I was speaking of harmless pleasures in this post. RIGHTful pleasures, although I tread carefully on the ground of entitlement. Thanks for sharing.

      Diana

  17. Diana, this is a very touching and meaningful post, especially for us women. Beauty and the power it brings has always held a special place in women’s hearts, rightly or wrongly and I think the definition and significance can have great impact on a person depending on their life situation. True beauty is so important and it has so little to do with what our contemporary society defines as pretty. There was a post recently in the Wall Street Journal on calendars featuring women who have been victims of acid throwing (yes sad,my this is a thing) that I felt compliments your message, I hope you don’t mind me posting it here….http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/03/12/acid-attack-survivor-calendar-shows-beauty-is-much-more-than-a-pretty-face/

    • I had trouble going through the gruesome pictures. Very moving. Thanks, Tricia. I’m glad to leave it here.

      “Beauty and the power it brings has always held a special place in women’s hearts, rightly or wrongly”. I love this. I think it has held a place in men’s heart, too. Appreciate the thoughtful reflection, T.

      Diana

  18. My trip to Bali a few years ago brought me to my knees – the sheer beauty people create and re-create every single day anew, the flower offerings to the gods and ancestors, the mandalas in front of a store, the total and non-negotiable dedication to it – it made me realize how absolutely essential beauty is in my life. I had always relied on Nature to provide beauty, but after Bali, it was important to me to create more beauty myself. Not just wait for it to unfold in the sky, or offer itself in the opening of a flower, or the graceful bending of a grass in the wind. So, that’s how my blog (and blog name) came about….:-)

    • “but after Bali, it was important to me to create more beauty myself.” Getting chills. Thanks for sharing what planted the seed for your blog! Don’t know if you know Eat, Pray, Love talks about 4 months Gilbert spent in Bali. Yes, your description of the place is straight out of her pages. =)

      (I was thinking of you. How’da know?) 😉
      Diana

  19. I had not considered this perspective – your honesty and the beautiful words of eat pray love make this post thing of beauty – in my busy day.

    I believe nature leaves us signs to follow: the poppies that first grew on Flanders fields, the daisies and dandelions that push through concrete gaps in pavements. Its a message of hope, that even in the darkest, bleak places, there is beauty.

    We need to appreciate everyone’s unique beauty, not just one aesthetic air brushed image. The message your teenage soul received, shows that we have not moved any further forward on our ‘concept of what a beautiful woman is’ Its us that places value on a lily above a dandelion, yet I still get pleasure from blowing the seed heads and watching them carry in the wind.

    Be you tiful

  20. Despite crime, war, destruction, and the abuse of our natural resources, there is beauty in the world. Yes! That we may see with fresh eyes, oh that we may see with fresh eyes.

  21. “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. ”

    This is so true…..

  22. The movie, Eat, Pray, Love, has been on my radar recently. (Assuming it is as good as the book!) Your post has confirmed my desire to see it. 🙂 Oftentimes, the best beauty is what takes us by surprise leaving us overwhelmed and breathless. That type of beauty looks different in each season of life. Looking forward to your new series!

    • “Oftentimes, the best beauty is what takes us by surprise leaving us overwhelmed and breathless. That type of beauty looks different in each season of life. ” I love this, Debbie. Wow. A different beauty to embrace, each in its own season. Thanks.

      D.

  23. Well and elegantly said. I have lived in Italy for 17 years now and you and Barzani and Gilbert have it right. Italian culture aside, yes, Beauty matters a great deal in keeping our souls happy and alive with song. Thanks so much for this post.

  24. A lovely post, Diana. There is beauty everywhere, and often its invisible to the eye, residing in the realm of the heart. I often forget to notice, filling my day with busy-ness. Thanks for the reminder.

  25. FIrst, I am going to read “Eat, Pray, Love” again.

    This post, it’s wonderful.
    I’ve often referred to myself as a feminist and used it as an excuse to be somewhat negligent of the little things I could do for me, buying a nice perfume, a blouse in a color that flatters my skin, getting that manicure… My thought was , “I want people to appreciate my brain, my abilities” .
    My pragmatic nature also applies to my personal time. I’ll fight against a walk outside on a nice day because I want to “get things done”.
    This post is an “Ah ha” moment for me.

    • SUSAN. =) I am SO glad you shared this. Yes, very much like me much of my life. I just finished a wonderful autobio by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice in the US who grew up around my old stomping grounds in NYC. A lot of her youth (and working her nose to the ground to climb the academic and professional ladder) resonated with me. She too, had a mother to whom elegance came as naturally as breathing. She was much like you and me. I am not on the large side as she was nor was I frumpy but listen to this. At the end, she writes: “Dressing badly has been a refuge much of my life, a way of compelling others to engage with my mind, not my physical presence. I’m competitive enough that I’ll eventually withdraw from any consistently losing battle. Elaine (a friend who taught her how to shop) gave me the precious gift of showing me that it didn’t need to be that way. I am a woman; I do have a feminine side. Learning to enjoy it would not diminish any other part of me.”

      And pride in asceticism is the other face of vanity.

      • My goal is to stop making “To Do” lists. I’ll mark off an hour here or there as needed to move projects along, but try more to look up-look around and notice the little things more. Maybe start taking evening walks in the neighborhood.

      • You’ve worked hard (at least to get where you are professionally), S. I have been reminded these last several years to be more gentle with myself. Hope you can do the same. =)

      • working hard to be a strong woman with a soft heart for some time – only in the last several months have I applied it to being more gentle with myself!

  26. Lovely post. I find the Italian culture and history reflection intriguing. I felt vaguely the same when I went to Greece and saw ancient Greek architecture and art but wondered why Greece never became a world power later on.

    Having beauty, especially the beauty of Nature in our world, is having mercy, the presence of grace and mercy for us to enjoy and to be humbled.

    Beauty reminds us of our own transience and fragility.

    • Love your reflections on beauty, J. Well, back in the day when Rome and Greece were world powers, Rome conquered G but they say G conquered Rome culturally, notably with the arts (which R took on). Appreciate the connection you draw with grace and mercy. There really is nothing more beautiful than the heart of forgiveness in the face of hate or atrocity. The power of redemption. Thanks.

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