Why do I think a bird is more beautiful than a worm might seem like a silly question on the surface; of course, birds with their multiple colors and plumage, flying effortlessly across the sky seem infinitely more beautiful than a slimy brown worm mucking around in the dirt. As I started thinking about Nurturing Beauty, this month’s worship theme, I started really wondering how and possibly why we think some things are beautiful and others are not? Is it purely cultural? Is it only about external characteristics? And I wonder what is the impact of what we each chose to define as “beautiful” on our psyches, our social lives, and our spiritual/ethical journeys.
Let me share a few images with you. These are random images when I pulled up the word beautiful on Google. Do you think this one is beautiful? Why?
I want to invite a couple of you to come up to the microphone and share your thoughts. And those on you online, please put your thoughts in the chat.
How about this one?
It is curious to me that what is considered beautiful can vary significantly from one person to another. Martha and I often watch television in the evenings, mostly streaming movies and shows. As we watch, Martha might say something about how beautiful a person or place or a scene is. More often than not I say something like: “I don’t see it.” “I don’t think that person, place, or scene is beautiful” or “It or they don’t do much for me.” Whether we are talking about the shape of a nose or curvature of cheeks or chin, or the expanse of a prairie or the ruins of an ancient civilization, or the love scene between two people who finally come together after much turmoil. “It’s okay”, as Martha is moved to tears by the beauty. I don’t know if you have had this experience with someone in your life, but it happens to me with some regularity.
Right now I wondering if I probably should have called this sermon “Why I think worms are more beautiful than birds?” You see when I was young, I found black racer snakes and alligator snapping turtles and worms beautiful and interesting—fun to watch and learn about. I don’t think my mother or really any mother of any son understood a young boy’s obsession with these kind of things. And as a young boy, I don’t remember ever looking at birds or flowers or girls as being beautiful. Perhaps this was part of being raised in a culture with very defined ideas of what ought to be masculine and feminine areas of interest.
In our white supremacist culture, beauty, as stereotypes go, is often associated with the feminine stereotype. Two of the definitions of beauty in the Microsoft Bing dictionary are: “1. denoting something intended to make a woman more attractive: and 2. a beautiful woman.” Women are judged by their beauty, accused of using their beauty, and even scapegoated because of their beauty. And what is considered beautiful for women in this culture is a moving target—what is considered beautiful today, will be considered dull, drab or repulsive tomorrow. Plastic surgeons make a fortune because of this.
I worked as the director of an outpatient and inpatient eating disorders clinic for a number of years. I have seen what this obsession with beauty has done to women’s psyches, how it has destroyed their health, their relationships, and on occasion led to their death. One of my woman friends, who was a psychiatrist, died from the complications of an acid peel to her face, which she did to erase some of the wrinkles from aging. She was obsessed with getting rid of them, because young is beautiful, right?
I have to say when I consider beauty, I am aware that I’ve been taught by our culture to default to women’s beauty, but instead most often I associate beauty more with the intangible quality of love. The people I love as the most beautiful people in my life.
How do you define beauty? What comes to mind when you think about the word beautiful? Knowing what you consider beautiful and why you think that can impact how you treat yourself, others, and your body, can influence what you buy and what medical treatments you choose to have. Wikipedia says: “Beauty is commonly described as a feature of objects that makes these objects pleasurable to perceive. Such objects include landscapes, sunsets, humans and works of art.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary gives the first definition of beauty as: “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else [such] (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).”
What happens when you think outside the beauty box? You heard physicist Richard Feynman say: “I see much more about the flower than he [my artist friend] sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? … All kinds of interesting questions in which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
Feynman has a very different understanding of beauty – not just the external aspects of an object or person or creature or plant. I hear him connecting beauty with what is interesting, fascinating, mysterious, even with smaller dimensions, inner structures, and processes, qualities that in themselves are not visible to the naked eye except as part of the resultant whole. These characteristics and the questions they elicit only add the beauty. You may not think of the worm itself as beautiful, but think of what it does. It enriches the soil, it aerates the soil, providing the optimum growing conditions for plants. The worm can be thought of as a type of inner structure, a small dimension or process, a critical component that has to happen in order for the beautiful flowers or vegetables or trees to happen--the visible beauty we bask in? Give thanks for the worms you don’t see, contributing their part to the whole.
I have developed a deeper appreciation of works of art, mostly abstract or modern art, because it makes me wonder. Abstract art is the kind of art that emphasizes the use of non-representational forms to create meaning and reality — meaning that it doesn’t necessarily represent objects in the physical environment, like the sun, trees, or people. I find the most beautiful pieces are those that evoke something emotional or spiritual, pieces that I have to step back from and look at a few times, to let sink in. What was the artist trying to portray? What is the artist expecting that I will see? What is the history of this art or what were the cultural or societal influences on this artist? How do my life experiences impact what I perceive or understand about this piece? Often I consider an abstract piece of art like Zen Buddhist Koan—causing me to go beyond my rational logical thinking to my intuitive, insightful, enlightened inner self. Sometimes a particular piece of art might even elicit a feeling of being connected to something larger than myself.
Have a look at this piece of art from the Rubell Museum. Notice how it impacts you or what it elicits in you, if anything. Notice as you consider it does your rational or logical mind seem to make meaning? Does your deeper self make another, different meaning? Examine what might be in the gap between your rational experience and your ineffable experience. What’s there?
And so I wonder what beauty I might nurture. The beauty of the external world? I think there is value in that, creating art, growing flower gardens, keeping beautiful natural places available to people for generations. But I also know the danger in external beauty, particularly for women with bulimia, anorexia, with women being harassed, raped, objectified, monetized. How about beauty in the unseen world? Like scientific discoveries in quantum physics, string theory, and microscopic organisms. Like worms underground.
The philosopher Plato said beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nurturing beauty is also about understanding yourself. About recognizing that our white supremist society and our negative life experiences may influence what we define as beautiful. But we still have choices. We can recognize those times when what we consider to be beautiful might in fact be destructive to us or someone else—like an obsession about always looking young. We can recognize those times when what we consider beautiful might perpetuate binary gender stereotypes or racial stereotypes. We can recognize those times when what we consider beautiful could be superficial and ultimately emotionally and spiritually unsatisfying. You know, now that I think about, perhaps I should have named this sermon “Who do I think that both worms and birds are beautiful?”
What I invite you to consider about beauty and nurturing beauty is this: explore, consider, reflect on, learn, go deeper. External beauty is fine, but remember that sometimes it is a superficial quality. A sunrise might be beautiful, but what happens when that sunrise is more than the image on your eyes. What if it touches something deeper in you? What if you consider the mystery and wonder in how the sunrise came to be? What if you open yourself to the universe that the sunrise is part of? What if you let the sunrise be your own anti-intellectual Koan, moving you to possible insight, intuition, or enlightenment. Beauty can be so much more than is on our eyes, if we but open yourselves to what it might offer.