A professor in one of my classes recently presented to us her thesis on Killing Beauty in North America. While I haven’t yet read her actual book, our discussion in class centered upon the possession-driven destruction of Native American people and land, perpetuated by many of our ancestors, to whom we are inevitably linked. The question was and is, ‘What is it within us which drives us to destroy beauty?’ By beauty, I mean deep, transcendent beauty—the kind we cannot comprehend, and not the kind of ‘beauty’ we tend to confuse with glamour. Do we destroy beauty for the sake of possession—for owning more and more? Are we trying to add to the self, to make it bigger and broader, as if it gains power somehow by encompassing its surroundings like a great, engulfing blob? Or do we, rather, destroy beauty for the sake of getting rid of the one thing we simply cannot possess?
When I heard my professor’s thesis, my initial impulse was to be defensive, thinking, ‘My ancestors may have obliterated a whole nation, but I would never have participated!’ or, ‘Some folks may go out and rip up forests or farm cattle, but I praise the trees and only eat free-range meat.” But then I began to think more deeply, and tried to recall a recent time I actively sought to destroy something beautiful. And I remembered some of my interactions with friends—how, when a moment arose for exchanging a beautiful insight or genuinely loving act, I quickly dispelled it in my discomfort with some absurd joke. Or when an older woman recently looked at me with such depth and care that I immediately broke our gaze, not able to hold it because the beauty, the love, was simply too much for me to bear. Truly, if we think we don’t destroy beauty, we must think again.
But why? Why, whether in broad strokes or small moments, do we humans kill what is beautiful? Why do we pave it over with ugly concrete, or sarcasm, or humor? When I experience great beauty in nature, I am often filled with a mix of intense joy and deep sorrow. The joy is magnificent, of course, but it rarely visits me alone. It is the sorrow I cannot face. Usually, unless I am particularly strong one day, my inability to face the sorrow causes it eventually to change shape into something lesser, its purity perverted into a twisted hatred, or more often into doubt or disillusionment. What I mean is that, when I see beauty in nature, both joy and sorrow are initially there. But because I am weak and clouded, and prey to all the burdens and distractions of this life, I begin to notice only the sorrow and can bear its intensity for only so long. Eventually, I let it change to selfish sadness, then to a kind of painful despair, then to consuming doubt that there was actually anything transcendent present at all… I become disillusioned with and even angry at the source of beauty, coming to expect that it will fail me, rather than understanding that it may actually be me who’s failing it.
Could it be this sense of failure, of being let down (or perhaps, less consciously, of my letting something or someone down), that makes me want to destroy the beauty at the source of all this confusion? While I don’t tend to cut down trees or knock over the lovely cairns people create along hiking paths, I do sometimes dispel beauty in the form of human love, by turning it to something lesser—something manageable, something I can possess and control. My halfhearted smile so often says, ‘Friend, I will fail you, or you will fail me, or what’s between us will certainly fail us in the end.’
But why does our experience of beauty end? Why can’t I stand in a forest forever and be caught up in the wonder of my surroundings—the earth, the sounds, the scents? Why can’t I be so enraptured by a symphony that my petty ruminations fade away for good? Why can I so rarely say with utter, penetrating sincerity, ‘Thank you, my friend,’?
My professor said in her thesis presentation that ‘the rage and destructiveness that would kill beauty is nothing more nor less than the soul’s desire to be seen.’ This is a very powerful thought—that my soul, the only thing of pure beauty within me, desires to be seen. And implied in the thought is that it cannot right now be seen, or at least not always or fully. When my professor first made this statement, I thought she meant that the soul’s desire is to be seen and recognized by others. While I believe this is true, I think there may be others, perhaps even a God, who do see my soul and know it is beautiful, even though its expression is not yet manifest in outward love and inner understanding. Really, I think that my own ‘rage and destructiveness’, whether open or hidden, whether directed outwardly or inward, is ‘nothing more nor less’ than my soul’s desire to be seen by me. I see so much external beauty, in nature, music, art, in other people…why can’t I see the same within myself? And so I go out and conquer a nation of beauty, subdue their beauty beneath me, try to engulf it like a ravenous blob, thinking, ‘If I can only consume those trees, that simplicity, the songs they sing and ways they dance… If I can only consume this person, his strength and passion, and the way he loves, THEN I will have that beauty within me! Then, it will be of me, MINE!’
I desire to see my own soul, to see it as I see the night sky, the full moon, or the soul of another. What would it require of me to hike a path into myself, not just to see that ‘I’m alright, I’m surviving, doing the best I can with what I have,’ but to see that beneath this ‘alright, okayness’ is an utterly beautiful, wondrous spirit, capable of great love and selflessness, waiting only for me to clear the brambles and barbwire along the path, to break apart the concrete covering the ground, so that this imprisoned spirit can approach outward, reach my face and eyes in a life-giving smile, and then reach the person before me, the community surrounding me, and the world and Spirit beyond?
A resting sorrow pervades this land… Some know it, many feel it, while others do not. I once hated my sensitivity to the sorrow, to the sadness both people and nature have wrought. I envied those who seemed to float above it all, resting in distraction or strange ideas of progress. But now, because I must, I thank Divine Beauty for teaching me through sorrow, for showing me the reality of what we have done upon this earth, both destructively and in stewardship, with the beauty given us. We humans can truly be blobs, but we have the capacity to become light, One Great Light of clarity and joy in the midst of all the chaos we’ve created. Knowing this, I will try to spend my life getting out of the way of the beauty inside me—my soul—whose very nature is to shine forth and be visible both to myself and to all.
- Written by Meryll Davis, a first year graduate student at Southwestern College, in response to the thesis of Dr. Constance Buck.