The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere—in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves.
Since its publication in 2004, I have been enthralled with John O’Donohue’s extraordinary book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. Time and again I return to the dog-eared and heavily highlighted pages of my copy of the book for comfort, inspiration, and creative stimulation. When the book was first published, I had not yet formulated a concept or construct for what I now believe is the most monumental reality of our time, the collapse of industrial civilization. A variety of names for this reality have arisen: the Long Emergency, the Great Turning, the great contraction, descent, transition, and more. The names we actually give the unprecedented changes that the earth community is now experiencing remain ambiguous at best. What is not ambiguous, however, is the fact that these changes are producing a world that is woefully less than beautiful.
Whether it be the rotting, gray carcasses of bleak, boarded up city blocks of abandoned store fronts; suburban cul de sacs consisting of vacant, foreclosed homes; countless crumbling bridges and pot-hole-pocked roads; tasteless, thoughtlessly-constructed high rises; irredeemably scarred mountaintops; or charred forests ravaged by the worst fire season in recent memory, the landscape of our planet is becoming increasingly dull, drab, and downright dismal.
But not only our landscape lacks luster in this time of daunting and depressing changes. So does the soul of our nation and our communities. Economic downturn, an epidemic of senseless violence, resource depletion, extreme weather, media marinated in consumeristic blather, and a pervasive sense of loss that signals an inexorable departure of meaning, creativity, inspiration, and compassion from the modern world—all of this leaves us so hungry for beauty that we do not even recognize our longing. And then from time to time, we hear a note or see a color or read a poem that stirs the ache in the soul for beauty. Perhaps we immediately quash the impulse because we feel too busy, too tired, too burdened, too despairing, or too fearful that if we surrender to it, we will be forced to confront the vapid grayness of the lack of beauty in our lives. Or perhaps we follow what is stirred by a glimpse of beauty, and we allow ourselves to indulge, even revel in the body sensations and soul restoration that bathe us for a time in our humanity and shine an inextinguishable light in the darkness of our time.
In such moments we rediscover on a cellular level what Piero Ferrucci, author of Beauty And The Soul declares near the beginning of his book: Beauty is the affirmation of life. What is more, beauty grounds us in life and in the body. “The more we can perceive beauty in our surroundings,” says Ferucci, “and also inside us, the more we will feel at home and glad to exist.” In fact, he points to a Swedish study of 12,000 people which indicated that “those who go more often to the theater, movies, to concerts and exhibitions, have a greater chance of longevity.” In other words, beauty increases the will to live.
For so many, beauty is seen as a luxury which they cannot afford, but John O’Donohue states:
Beauty is not an extra luxury, an accidental experience that we happen to have if we are lucky. Beauty dwells at the heart of life….To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing.
Pierro Ferucci is an Italian psychologist who writes prolifically about the healing power of beauty in his work with emotionally wounded people. In my work as a former psychotherapist, I also witnessed the salutary effects of various forms of beauty in the lives of people who were tormented by depression, despair, and self-loathing. Often when we think of beauty, we erroneously separate it from all that is ugly and broken, yet O’Donohue says:
Beauty is such an attractive and gracious force precisely because it is so close to the fractured side of experience. Beauty is the sister of all that is broken, damaged, stunted, and soiled. She will not be confined in some untouchable realm where she can enjoy a one-sided perfection with no exposure to risk, doubt, and pain. Beauty dwells in the palace of broken tenderness.
Beauty emerges, sometimes erupts, from a deeper place in us than the rational mind and the human ego. It is a visitation of the sacred from a place beyond but also within us. Beauty reconnects us with the soul and also with the universe. It mirrors in the external world the treasures of our inner world. Allowing beauty to penetrate the heart naturally results in a love relationship with the beauty we behold. For example, we may see a beautiful lake and want to preserve it because it is beautiful, and this is certainly a noble and heartfelt motivation. However, nothing motivates us like love. That is, when we see the lake not as an entity outside ourselves but as ourselves, we will do whatever it takes, including risking our own lives, to preserve it.
Thus, from the words of Ferucci and O’Donohue, it makes sense that the more we witness the descent of civilization and the decline of our communities, the more we and our world require conscious experiences of beauty. We have already seen that beauty affirms life, but in a declining world, it serves other purposes as well.
Allowing ourselves to bathe in beauty stimulates the imagination. When the imagination is activated, we are able to envision new possibilities. Obviously, we live in a culture that abhors limits of any kind and is wedded to the notion of infinite growth and unimpeded progress. But limits are a fact of life on earth. Often, when we confront limits, we find that we simply need to live with them. However, when the imagination is activated, we awaken to the beauty of our creativity which frequently changes the way we view our limits. As O’Donohue notes, “The beauty of imagination helps you to see the limit as an invitation to venture forth and view the world and your role in it as full of beautiful possibilities.”
When tragedy occurs and lives are lost, survivors bring objects of beauty to a wounded place and create beautiful altars and shrines. In Newtown, Connecticut where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred in December, 2012, the town witnessed a historical outpouring of sacred objects brought to the scene of the tragedy by mourners from far and wide. Newtown has now declared that it will collect all of those mementos and turn them into “sacred soil” for a permanent memorial.
Wounded places cry out for beauty, and activist and author Trebbe Johnson writes of “making beauty for wounded places.” One way of doing this is what she describes as an “Earth Exchange”:
An Earth Exchange is part ceremony, part social event, part Happening, part nature walk. An Earth Exchange might consist of one person or a hundred, can be planned weeks in advance or occur on the spur of the moment, can last a week or a few minutes. All it takes it going to a damaged place, opening up to what’s there now, and making some beauty of and for this place that has given so much to the people who live among it or love to visit it.
As we prepare for an increasingly challenging future, let us commit to creating beauty wherever and whenever possible. Whatever next culture is created on the ashes of the current one by those who survive its unraveling will evolve not only from the efforts of those who are clear-eyed and clear-headed thinkers but also from the creativity of artists and any others who seize every opportunity to create beauty. In the absence of sophisticated technology, the only music of the future may be ultimately be that made by the most primitive, basic instruments in the hands of highly imaginative musicians. The only visual art may be that shaped from the most fundamental elements of nature—branches, leaves, seeds, rocks, hides, and the pigments of plants. The demise of industrial civilization will compel us to redefine beauty and what we have previously deemed “necessary” in order to savor it.
A forthcoming, soul-stirring documentary, Landfill Harmonic, reveals the uncanny ingenuity of young people in Paraguay who have created a symphony orchestra from objects of trash. For the most part, their lives are about grinding poverty and little beauty, but they have proven that beauty can be created anywhere under any circumstances.
Creating beauty is an act of simplicity and service that invites the sacred into the ordinary spaces and times of our lives and facilitates healing and wholeness in an increasingly broken world. Let beauty heal your world and inform your journey of service in an age of decline, and as the poet Rumi writes,
Let the beauty you love be what you do.