How to Find Hidden Beauty

Image from Pixabay

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect”, relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect”, and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro”. It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge for some well-earned rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us that incredible beauty can be found in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

The folly of impressing others

1_dh1MZwNdUYAvXa7xyTu-wwPhoto by Aiman Zenn on Unsplash

In Western society, a great deal of concern goes into our appearance. The inescapable advertisements that bombard our senses (supposedly up to 5000 a day) are filled with the kinds of celebrities that marketers have decided we want to be like. They’re promoting the idea that if we buy a cologne, we could be as chiseled and perfect as Mr. Depp. The skincare product that costs a day’s salary will almost certainly make you as desirable as the flawless Cheryl Cole.

It’s absurd, of course. The fragrant liquids that we slather onto our faces will not remove the additional chin that we’ve spent years acquiring. We’re being sold an unattainable reality, completely removed from the truth, and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Standards of beauty are set by those who want to sell us something, not by people who have our mental health in mind. They’re giving us what we want, and not what we need.

How do we prevent this from affecting our self-esteem, when it’s so ubiquitous? The answer may lie in a 2000-year old philosophy called Stoicism.

The Stoics believed that you shouldn’t worry about anything outside of your control. This includes how people feel about the way you look. While it’s important to fit in (you can’t go around dressed like a chicken and not expect some roadblocks), it’s utterly meaningless to try to impress, because you can’t control people’s reactions to you. If somebody is rude enough to point out that your nose looks like a pickle that has been rejected by the local supermarket, it isn’t the insult that has caused hurt, it’s your judgment of it. Such a comment is merely the words of an idiot to a Stoic, because they have decided to place value only in what they can control: their reaction. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare

Being able to suspend your judgment in such situations seems superhuman. Even Marcus Aurelius, once Emperor of Rome, and one of the most famous Stoics, struggled every day to adhere to his own philosophy. His Meditations is an insightful and compelling personal diary about his life as a Stoic, and the difficulties he faced.

The idea seems based on solid ground though, despite its demanding nature. Consider how many of your behaviours are influenced by wanting to impress others, and what your life could be like if it were no longer a factor? You could look and act however you wanted (to a certain degree), provided it wasn’t causing others harm. You’d have a more peaceful, less anxious mind. There’d be a great deal more honesty about you. The people who you choose to spend time with would value you for the person that you want to be, not who society thoughtlessly applauds.

The sentiment is echoed by countless others. Michel de Montaigne, a refreshingly forthright French Renaissance philosopher, encourages us to be more like the animals: totally comfortable and ignorant of ourselves, and how we appear to others. Further East, Confucius believed that:

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.” – Confucius

So the next time you find yourself engaged in something that is purely to impress, take a moment to realise your mistake, and remember to let go of that which you can’t control.

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