When we are in the presence of beauty, our experience of it is far from sterile; it is transcendent.
Do Something Beautiful
By R. York Moore
It was only mid-June but already the grass crunched under my feet like potato chips. We were just at the beginning of the great drought of 1988–89 in the US, one of America’s worst. The ugliness of the earth was matched by the ugliness of my dead-end, drug-infested street. We were also at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in Detroit, and my community was as scorched by violence and drugs as the extra crunchy grass and trees in my front yard. My world was far from beautiful.
The burned-out houses on our block were constantly accessorized by drug addicts and drunks. The stink of toxic fumes from the nearby waste disposal plant hung in the dense, hot air along with the rattling speakers of rap music blaring from cars passing by. Beauty was far from my mind. People living in places like mine are far more concerned about things like food, safety and shelter. Death was a way of life.
I had just graduated high school and my graduating class was missing several who were a part of the twenty-one homicides in my immediate neighborhood. Death from gunshot, death from drugs, death from disease and death from suicide—beauty was nowhere to be found. That is why I was caught off guard by my mother’s request. “York,” she hollered authoritatively, “you are going to have to take care of the hedges in the front yard this summer.” We had lived in the house for three years, and I had never even taken notice of the bushes in the front yard. My mother was recovering from surgery, so I was tasked with caring for the bushes. This small task in a place of death and ugliness, however, was one of the first ways I began to suspect that there was something more, a story about everything.
Surprisingly, caring for these bushes also launched a lifelong love for natural beauty, which I’ve cultivated into a talent for landscaping and gardening. This has become a core part of who I am today, but at the time I don’t think I had ever stopped to take note of a tree, a bush or a flower in all my life.
A row of seven bushes about five feet tall separated our house from the invading urban squalor. For some reason, this hedge did more than separate our house from the neighbors; it seemed to actually do something. It kept ugliness from creeping over onto our property. When I began to take care of the bushes, I wouldn’t have called them beautiful. They too were crispy from the drought and filled with weeds. I began by weeding, trimming and excessively watering. I then covered the ground around them with stones, which I later learned would help with erosion and water retention. I began to take small joy in seeing new shoots and leaves, watching the bushes become vibrant under my care. My teen friends laughed at me as I spent hours each week nurturing bushes for my mom. It didn’t take long before this raggedy row became lush and green and strikingly full of life against a backdrop of ugly sounds, sights and smells. My friends laughed a little less over the summer as they saw how my care made a small difference in making something green in one of the worst droughts in American history. Though our house was ugly and the surrounding area was terribly ugly, this simple, beautiful row of vibrant bushes stood as a barrier, a marker against the drug addicts, drug pushers, trash dumpers, homeless, sleepy drunks and others. Our house had a modicum of respect because there was something living there, something green, something beautiful.
Beauty is an elusive term, one often thought to be merely subjective. Standards of beauty have changed from era to era, from peoples to peoples. An element of personal taste goes into labeling something beautiful, but there is also a fixed element. An oversimplified, standard definition of beauty is: the right proportion and alignment of attributes in something or someone that brings deep emotional and/or mental pleasure to the beholder. Sounds pretty sterile, doesn’t it?
When we are in the presence of beauty, our experience of it is far from sterile; it is transcendent. Google the term and you will get some combination of the elements of this sterile definition. But something is missing in this basic definition. Beauty is much more than a proper alignment of attributes. It goes beyond providing mere mental and emotional pleasure. Beauty actually does something. Beauty is functional. Because of this, beauty is the font that God uses to write the story of everything. God’s beauty actually accomplishes something, as I learned during a time of ugliness and drought with those green bushes. The beauty of the bushes didn’t just look good; their beauty offered a tangible protection against the ugliness surrounding us.
Part of the reason a concrete definition of beauty is hard to articulate is that beauty is one of those firefly ideas—it belongs to another realm. You know that you are in the presence of beauty, even in a basic simple expression like my bushes, by what beauty accomplishes both in us and in the world around us. Beauty can captivate us at a soul level. Beauty ushers in a “holy hush” most commonly experienced as eerie silence. Beauty is most striking when it stands against the backdrop of the ordinary and ugly. My simple row of bushes would never have stood out as beautiful if it weren’t for the drought-ravaged lawn on which it stood. A normal, ordinary day became a magical wonder of beauty at dusk in that field of fireflies in part because of the ugliness of the home, dilapidated barn and field of mud and corn.
We see this all the time. A sudden change in weather patterns can create an elemental display of natural beauty in a snowstorm, fog rolling across a still lake or a thunderstorm flashing with bright light. Watch a person stare into a sunset, lose themselves as snow swirls about them, or forget the world around them as they gaze into a fireplace. Beauty beckons us into a half-conscious state where we are joyfully unconcerned with concern.
Think about when you have experienced something beautiful. How did it make you feel? Think about when you created something beautiful, perhaps a piece of art or a row of flowers or a table full of food. Whether we are experiencing or creating beauty, it beckons us. It calls to us. Open Instagram and scroll through the newsfeed of your friends. Do you find yourself a little lost on the more artistic shots, the shots of snow on mountain peaks, the shots of the beautiful smiles of your friends’ children? Part of what makes our consumption of social media so addictive is not just the people in our feed but how they are often immersed in a vibrant world and radiating life. Social media for most people is not just about friendship; it is about the beauty of the world and the beauty of people. My phone has become for me a window into other worlds, often as powerful and inescapable as a fire in the fireplace or watching the sun dip low into Lake Michigan.
Regardless of whether we find beauty in the palm of our hand or in the natural world around us, we are subject to its power because of where beauty comes from. Beauty is a sneak peek through a portal into another time and place. It’s an artifact of another world. Certainly, fireflies dancing against the backdrop of a summer meadow at dusk is a beautiful sight, but watch the people watching it and you’ll see the power of beauty. Beauty enraptures us, holds us spellbound and causes a reverent hush. But beauty does more than this. Beauty elicits within us a set of transcendent reactions. The word transcendent means that which is beyond our physical, visible experience.
Transcendent reactions to beauty include hope, joy, longing, passion and love. Beauty expands the interior of our hearts and minds and allows us to experience transcendence. Beauty actually accomplishes something. It opens a door within our souls to experience God’s story of everything.
Excerpted from Do Something Beautiful: The Story of Everything and How to Find Your Place in It by R. York Moore (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.