I started out this blog with a question, but I’ve learned it was the wrong question. Why does a colorful sunset, or the morning sun on the face of a mountain evoke emotion? A baby’s smile, a flower with morning dew, a waterfall’s mist, the different shades of green in a forest, bright stars splashed across a black sky, staggering mountain peak views, slow meandering rivers, a vibrant butterfly, the rich hues of a shallow reef, the powerful curl of waves, the flame of a campfire…why are we attracted to beautiful things? What is it about beauty that draws us in and somehow brings relief and happiness to the moment?
But the question shouldn’t be “why do we feel good when we see beautiful things,” because the answers that will come about are scientific – our brains are attracted to mathematic symmetry and feel more at ease when we see these things in architecture, art, and nature – butterfly wings, people’s faces, sunflowers, a conch shell. We are subconsciously attracted to things that are in harmony with some universal order we’re probably not even aware of. But that answer does nothing to help live a better and fuller life. So what should the question be? I suppose it should be, “if there are things that exist that we feel are beautiful, and they bring an element of peace to our day, then how can we live a life with more beauty and less ugliness?”
I can get out of my car, grab my paddle, walk through the parking lot, jump in whichever boat I’ve been assigned that practice, and start powering away to the inevitable breathless state I end up in by the end of practice, and never once pick up my head to realize I’m in the middle of a sea of vivid blues and greens, under an equally vibrant blue sky with sprays of white in the clouds mirroring the ocean foam from the waves below. I could go through an entire outrigger canoe paddling practice and never pay attention to the beauty that surrounds me. Or I could look around and be mindful of the gift I am a part of. We can be a part of beauty and let it be a part of us merely by mindfulness and awareness.
But let me challenge myself to one more layer of thought. Beauty doesn’t just make us happier, it makes us better. By watching the rays of the sun stream through the clouds and shroud the ocean with sparkles of reflection, I am elevated from a creature of survival to a deeper soul-filled creation. Beauty finds the corners of our souls that speak of love and grace and depth and wholeness, and we feel connected to our world by a web of life.
Philosopher Elaine Scarry suggests an encounter with beauty, in any of its forms, “call us to an intensity of consciousness, to a sense of life’s utter preciousness and amplitute, actually prompting us to replicate the beauty we see. It ignites our desire for truth and fuels our desire to repair the damage done by injustice.” When we witness beauty, we are transformed to better versions of ourselves than before we saw it. We become more alive, more connected, more appreciative, more receptive, more humble, more curious, more generous and maybe even a little more loving.