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Beholding Beauty

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. The good news of such a sentiment is that hope exists that someone, somewhere, will look upon any one of us and be drawn toward admiration and appreciation. The bad news, if there is any, is that a lot of stuff passes for art that wouldn’t make my short list for anything other than a run to the landfill. But that is the point. Beauty has a subjective quality that makes it illusive. When it comes to a precise definition or description, it is not a “one size fits all” subject.

A recent visit to Iceland invited the topic of beauty to my mind’s forefront. As our flight descended beneath the clouds in preparation for landing at the Keflavik airport, the ground below revealed we were about to step into another world, or at least an unfamiliar terrain. Don’t waste your time looking for towering oak and mighty maple trees – you won’t find them here. Geysers and hot springs populate the landscape. Clouds of steam can be observed on the horizon. Stone and lava fields outnumber loamy, smooth fields suitable for planting. Even in areas capable of cultivation, one must be selective about what is planted because of Iceland’s short growing season. This place is not like Indiana home!

Rugged is the first word that comes to mind as a description of this different landscape. At times it appears barren. The wind can be brutal. Sunshine, clouds, and fog take turns influencing the ambiance of the day. The whole country is best suited for hearty stock willing to face the elements without complaint or regret. And yet,  .  .  .   Iceland is stunning in its raw beauty. In part it is a result of the occasional sunshine that glistens off of snowcapped peaks. It is enhanced by a visible freeze line half way down the mountain where the snow tapers off and the look of spring time returns. In part it is about numerous waterfalls whose far-reaching spray provides a souvenir free soaking to those who venture too close as it complements the roaring sound of water in motion. The expanse of the horizon, allowing the eye to see for miles, is breathtaking. I could only stand and marvel at this place, sensing a surprising joy and gratitude as I attempted to absorb the experience and savor the moment.

Creatures lend their support to this beauty as well. Wild Icelandic horses run through the countryside, intent on a destination only they understand. The arctic fox, whose white winter coat was about half replaced by its springtime brown fur when we saw it, watched curiously as travelers frequented a visitor’s center museum. Three hundred eighty-eight varieties of birds are said to call Iceland home. Some, like the puffin and the kittiwake nest along the rocks, decorating the cliffsides like Christmas ornaments on a tree. Near the shoreline, humpback whales occasionally break the surface, allowing determined travelers a few seconds to fumble with their phones in an effort to capture the perfect photo.

Beauty in multiple forms abounds in this place. Not all of it is found in raw nature. An equal measure was evident in the people we met. For instance, there was the woman who turned her masters thesis into a cottage industry dying wool with colors extracted from plants native to the area, unlocking the creative potential from things made available by the environment. A horse farming family — look out their window in any direction and you won’t see their closest neighbor, or any other sign of civilization for that matter. Questions about shopping, school, and especially for the children, about socialization – suggest other ways this could be a harsh climate. But in the networks of relationships that exist, to this outsider, beauty flourishes in their ability to embrace a harsh reality while also exuding joy their spirit of openness and welcoming hospitality.

As these Icelandic experiences accumulated, I found myself pondering the place of beauty in our world. Attention to it abounds in our culture, but I wonder if it is mostly in misguided ways? It is often confined to the world of glitz and glamour. High fashion. Loads of make-up. Run-way strutting. Cosmetic enhancement. The definition of beauty that fuels that world serves to elevate and separate people and groups in ways that offer little to the world at large other than a momentary flash of desire followed by a wake of lust and envy. Beauty is so much more – or perhaps better stated, so much other than what is frequently embraced as its sum total.

Definitions for beauty emphasize receiving pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind. Such a general definition is appropriate for a subjective topic. Its breadth allows us to move on from the common stereotypes and ask in what else or where else do we discover pleasure and satisfaction to the mind. An easy answer to the question is that creation itself presents us with numerous opportunities to recognize beauty. Art museums are choice locations for searching for beauty as well. Regardless of what you or I may think of a particular style of art, collectors’ desires for certain items and their willingness to pay the staggering price tags attached to them suggest someone values those works. For others, it could be the latest version of a particular sports car. Or an athlete or dancer executing their moves with effortless perfection. Rarer perhaps is the recognition of beauty when it occurs within social networks and relationships – comforting an upset child; caring for an aging parent; couples anticipating each other’s needs.

If the options are that numerous, and the definition is that fluid, how do we know when we are beholding beauty? For starters, beauty inspires. It triggers wonder and awe. It could be the mouth gaping, wow moments. It could be the quieter, satisfying “aha” or “hmmm” moments. Beauty stuns our senses, just enough to slow us and grab our attention.

When beauty is experienced, the viewer momentarily transcends their prior occupation or circumstance. Swept up in the encounter, a certain exhilaration touches the soul as we attempt to extend the pleasure of the moment. In the spirit of Jack Nicholson’s line in As Good As It Gets, it may even make you want to be a better person.

Beauty invites us to look, to ponder, and to enjoy. Like sitting for hours in front of a painting that catches our eye, beauty invites us to linger – to notice, appreciate, and contemplate. I once had a New Testament professor who, when he discovered a new insight that deserved attention would invite students to “marinate” in that idea for a while. As a food prep term, “marinate” took some getting used to an academic context, but it was an effective image. To this day, I enjoy marinating in new and intriguing ideas.  Marinating in beauty could just be a discipline worth cultivating!

It may be that the best way to achieve pleasure or satisfaction of the mind from an instance of beauty is be quiet. It is tempting to rush into the middle of a beautiful moment in an effort to be closer or even be counted as part of it. It may be better to reign in that impulse. Instead try to be hushed. Observe. Appreciate. And let beauty fall over you like a gentle rain. I found that to be true recently. As a congregation sang a hymn, the experience of being quiet and listening to the music being sung was a more beauteous experience than singing along with them. Of course, if everyone did that, the moment would fall apart! The point is that sometimes we gain from a half-step back from full participation.

Iceland has provided a refresher course on the topic of beauty. Speaking for myself, I may be guilty of failing to notice it often enough. Perhaps I need to be more intentional in the search. Like birders armed with binoculars in hand, I would benefit to keep my eyes peeled for evidence of beauty that is around me. Even if beauty surrounds us, we will only appreciate what our eyes manage to behold.

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