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Notes from the Small Pond: Beholders

When the philosophers and theologians and other Smart Alecs living in the realm of Enlightenment remind us that “Beauty Is Everywhere” if only we’d open our vacant, searching eyes to it and allow the reality of it to blanket us like a saffron, terrycloth robe, they tend to leave out the part about beauty — the aesthetic elements of it, anyway — being inherently subjective.

Your Beauty may not be mine.

So, when we’re encouraged to “allow beauty in,” we’re, in fact, being encouraged to define what beauty is. How can we “let it in,” if we don’t know what it is, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it tastes, smells and sounds like?

Mostly, we invite beauty into our lives in a sort of passive way and often mistake beauty for pleasure or comfort or fun or some other positively stimulating end result of being exposed to the Beautiful Thing.

Stick with me, here.

We see a rainbow or a total eclipse of the sun or a girl in a small T-shirt straddling a bicycle in the sunny street, shoving her pile of hair onto the top of her head, her lips pinched around the red barrette she’ll use to keep it in place, the sun gleaming off her brown skin ….

And we say That is Beautiful.

Because it is pleasing, not only to the senses, but on an internal, entirely personal, level that is born alongside the aggregate, human opinion, but entirely separate from it.

Both of us can think the rainbow or the eclipse or the girl on the bike is beautiful, but our respective experience of that beauty is utterly singular.

In this sense, we are utterly alone.

And, this, itself, may be where the beauty lies: in the shared universal alone-ness we experience when confronted with All Things Beautiful — the recognition of that Alone-ness and the twin recognition that Alone doesn’t have to mean alienated.

Or lonely.

Perhaps, in some way, it’s part of why humans love and kill each other — our shared appetite for and our unshared definition of.

That is, while beauty (or Truth or Justice or Peace or Love or any other large, platitudinous — too complex to definitively nail down) can, and does, unite us in the aggregate, it falls short of saving us from ourselves, as the pettiness, cruelty, greed, avarice and inherent narcissism that characterizes human behavior, thrives in the midst of all of life’s beauty, just as beauty thrives in the midst of all of life’s pettiness, cruelty, greed, avarice and narcissism.

So.

The concept of “choosing” to observe, celebrate and be fueled by beauty is not unlike the idea of “choosing” to be happy, healthy, content. Or tall.

I can’t “choose” to be happy or healthy or content any more than I can choose to be tall. I can act happy and behave in a healthy way and I can train my brain and heart to feel content. And I can wear stilts.

But acting, behaving and feeling those things are not the same as being those things.

Wearing stilts doesn’t make me tall.

… Still with me?

But, what I can do is take this un-tall self of mine and be reminded I am, indeed, taller than my brother. And there are humans living satisfactorily on Planet Earth that are actually shorter than he is. God Help Them.

In this sense, I can stave off despair — remind myself that others have it worse — misery loves (needs) company, dontchya know. But staving off despair isn’t the same thing as living in the presence of beauty, doesn’t smell like the sweet and satisfying nectar of having Let Beauty In.

In sum, speaking of pettiness and narcissism, let me fix the cliché. No more Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

Closer to the truth to say:

Beauty is the Beholder.

The next time you walk out of the Louvre, after hours pacing past the treasures that represent beauty, spanning culture and time, after being humbled by and appreciative for the ability of our species to express ourselves, as ourselves, see the intoxicated, soiled and clinging homeless Parisian begging and pressing his smelly self against you as just another Beautiful Thing to be acknowledged, celebrated, beheld before our very eyes.

Our vacant, searching eyes.

Cloquet’s Parnell Thill is an award-winning columnist and author of “Killing the Devil and Other Excellent Tricks,” available online. Contact him c/o [email protected].

 
 
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