Practices of Looking – Part Two – If Beauty is Changing Us, We’d Better Pay Attention

In the previous post, I shared that a philosophical look at beauty could show that we are, individually and collectively, changed by beauty. I also shared that beauty, quite literally, changes the world. If you have not read, part one, please take a quick peek.


     If what I thought was beautiful was determining what I chose to eat, and wear, and encounter, I figured I better pay attention. And if others were saying that a person, a piece of artwork, or a film was interesting or captivating, (otherwise known as beautiful), then I better pay attention to that, too. Because even if I didn’t personally find it moving, or even healthy, that form of media had the power to change my world on a very practical level. From the color paint that was available to be slathered on my walls, to the design of the cars I would sit in, to the stories that would become part of my soul and the souls of those I loved, beauty mattered.

The more I looked, the more I realized that what was deemed beautiful — from kitchen gadgets to human relationships to religious and cultural expressions –is our human story. Beauty was developing the narration of what one day would be our history. It was creating new traditions, ideas, expectations, and forms of expression. And unlike the generations that came before us, our story was changing far more rapidly than most of us could grapple with. Realizing this, I did what every control freak would do: I developed a process of tracking beauty.

The trouble is that in order to find beauty, you have to slow down enough and remove your own judgement and criticisms long enough to ask: What are people responding to exactly? And what in them connects with that image or storyline? And why does it matter? And those, my friends, those are not questions that have quick answers. Those are questions that take a steady, patient soul, who is willing to listen and to learn. I know, because I have been easily irritated at this practice of looking. If you try this, you will find our just how opinionated you are, and just how much your worldview colors how you see everything.

I can bore you with opinions about what I saw and what I think it means, but I’m not going to. What I am going to tell you is that deliberately seeking out beauty opens your eyes to a different reality. In essence, you get to see what no one will ever tell you, but what’s driving them forward. And, if you’re really lucky, you get to change your own decision making process, too.

If recognizing beauty could do all this, maybe beauty is not just a concept. Maybe beauty is a movement, originating from a source, and someone was in control of the story. And maybe beauty then was a form of a gift from that person/being, who obviously really cares about us. And, if that’s true, then maybe our creations were some kind of communication with that source. It was our way of hearing and responding to something greater than us.

Because, it seems that Beauty seems to be both what allows us to move forward, and what allows us to stay in the present. It is the food and drink that nourishes us, and we simply cannot live without it. If that’s so, then making space for beauty becomes an essential practice. And if we needed beauty, and we might also need the source of that beauty. That’s where I’ll pick up next time.

To be continued….





Practices of Looking — How to Cultivate a Philosophy of Beauty in Everyday Life — Part One, the Background

Author’s Forward: There are some blog posts that have sat in my bones for too long. They are lessons that seem so simple and so obvious, and so unworthy of anyone’s time. What’s worse is that when I attempt to write about them, I feel narcissistic —  I end up becoming the writer where I am the hero of my own story and the lessons I implemented saved the day… and maybe the pet fish’s life. Gross.

But this post, this post is about what saves MY life each and every day.  I’m going to do my best not to be annoying, obnoxious, or too geeky, but I won’t make any promises. Because I really believe in this with all I got. And I am kind of a nerd about it.

"Person at the Window" Salvador Dali

“Person at the Window” Salvador Dali

I didn’t register for college classes the way most kids did. While others were fiddling around with lining up work schedules and drinking habits to class loads attuned to graduation requirements, I researched like crazy. I didn’t have a full-ride scholarship or a college fund, and I knew that I was going to be paying for my degree for years to come. So when I registered for classes, I looked for professors who I knew were going to change me as a person. I wanted a Robin Williams Dead-Poet-Society-Style teacher for every class, if I could, please. And if it were at all possible, could that class be after 10am?

I knew that I would forget the things I was taught, but I wouldn’t forget the passion with which the lessons were taught. And that, that would mean that I  would leave the class changed. That seemed like something that money couldn’t really buy, and that might actually be worth going into student debt over.

Three of those classes seeped into the marrow of my soul so much that I can hardly tell where my ideas begin and their lessons end. These three classes were Philosophy of Aesthetics, Practices of Looking, and Film and Looking. The first asked the questions: how do we tell if something is beautiful? What qualities make a piece of art aesthetically pleasing? And how can we create beauty? The other two class used fine arts and popular cultural forms as a way of tracking social movements. They asked questions like: Why do we respond emotionally, artistically, and intellectually to media? And Does what we see affect how we think about the world? (As opposed to previous cultures who relied upon what they heard or were told by leaders).

Both classes were taught by people of integrated faith. By that, I mean that these were not simple-minded professors who wanted to connect everything with God. They were people who looked at the intersection of art, philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, creativity, life, and music and found that they were holding something sacred. Something that seemed like it was way too precious to be scrutinized, but was far too rare and important to just ignore. You can see why classes like this could change the way you think about life, and humble your own intellectualism in a way that few other arguments could.

I left all three of those classes with a profound truth: For better or for worse, the greatest beauty was one that you cultivated yourself, and which, so moved you, that you changed who you were to accommodate it. And that kind of beauty could literally change the world.

How does that look practically?  Well, if you, as an individual found tradition to be beautiful, you would move your body to practice tradition. If you found a certain person beautiful, chances are, you would change your own appearance to be like that person, or find a way to befriend someone like them. In short, beauty would move you from the place that you were to a different reality, and you would go willingly. (Jesus folks, stay with me, I’m not going to go Oprah doctrine on you. I promise.)

Beauty would change your world view. It would change how you saw the world and the movements in it. Encountering beauty would be like encountering a truth that you did not know, but that you wanted to become one with. Which means, that you could also disrupt social movements, long-held ideals, and social and political issues. Beauty was powerful, and it had to have a bigger definition than “pretty” or “pleasing to the eye.” It had to be more than this weak background noise. Beauty was moving us, and we didn’t even know it.

To be continued….