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Reflections on Beauty

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857, USA

Definitions of beauty have changed from the time of the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, to the worship of a single male God, to today where we are confronted daily with images of feminine and masculine ideals urging us to improve ourselves.

However there are notions of beauty from deeper reflections by poets and philosophers.

Confucius says  “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  This implies that beauty is larger, more inclusive than the outline of a woman’s shape, that it is everywhere, in everything, and it is up to us to see it.  So if I call someone “ugly” does it reveal more about myself than the one I observe?

If Confucius were alive today, and could see the messages that come from the beauty industry what would he think?  

I remember many years ago, working in an office where a young man repeatedly put down women.  “She’s got a face like a dog” he would say as though a woman’s worth was contained in the shape of her eyes, nose and mouth.  Every time he opened his mouth I felt my skin shrink. I was affected by his comments even though I wasn’t responsible for his opinions.  Why should I care?

I think the answer to that, is, we are raised to be part of something larger than ourselves and sensitive to the messages that tell us how we should be.  We absorb generalizations about men and women on several levels, not just the rational.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.” When we receive so much negative feedback how can the light endure?

What I look for in other people is that light within.  It has different colours and shapes but its beauty resonates, affirms and inspires. If I can’t see it in others then do I have the responsibility to find it and draw it out? To see the beauty everywhere and in everyone as Confucius says?

For Anne Roiphe “A woman whose smile is open and whose expression is glad has a kind of beauty no matter what she wears”  I have met men and children and dogs and cats whose expression is glad and who look beautiful to me. If I say that I could be viewed suspiciously by spouses, parents and pet owners.  Because of the commodification  and exploitation of beauty, I cannot say it without offending someone.

How can we celebrate beauty then, in this climate?

“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” says Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In our art of creating community, there is abundant beauty. We can find it in music, ideas, friendships. 

Identifying the most beautiful things in my life I recall moments with friends and family – their art, their pain, their labour, their concerns and their love. Truth and beauty is embedded within the human family.

Kahlil Gibran affirms this. We find beauty “in a loving heart” and truth “in a labourer’s hand”  Here the most prized elements of civilization are returned  back to a reverence for life.

Dante Alighieri claims that “Beauty awakens the soul to act” The soul, for me, includes all our relations, back to the first living cell that inhabited this planet. Now I understand what Confucius means when he says beauty is everywhere. All I have to do is see it.


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