Beauty and Strength

Part 4 of a series of posts for the Pagan Values Event.

The overculture has a complex relationship with the values of beauty and strength. In some ways they might be considered incompatible. Beauty is both highly prized and severely devalued, associated with weakness, facility, or superficiality. To be concerned with beauty is considered not engaging with the “real” matters of life.

Beauty as applied to humans is also embedded in privilege and oppression. The ongoing legacy of White supremacy prizes White skin, hair, and features and denigrates skin of deeper shades, eyes of many shapes and colors, and hair of all types. This pattern occurs with implicit and explicit messages, and harms people of color on constant, ongoing, psychological and cultural fronts.  Our culture privileges certain types of bodies as beautiful, despite their inaccessibility for most of us. The results of doctoring images to remove “imperfections” and enhance beauty are well-known, such that we might measure our own beauty by a standard that is a literal illusion.

In spite of all this, I think there is value and need for beauty in our lives. Beauty has two facets, an aesthetic that pleases our senses, and an inner quality that radiates from an integrated self. Humans are sensory creatures. To truly savor something beautiful in all its visual, tactile, sensual glory feeds a deep need within us. The beauty of a sunset or sunrise, two gifts offered freely to us every single day of our lives, can inspire and uplift the spirit. Listening to music we find beautiful and touching, eating delicious food; these things give us a sense of well-being and joy of living, which makes our experience an act of love and pleasure. There is a tendency in our culture to devalue things that are not productive in a capitalist sense, not contributing toward some personal growth or economic benefit, without a tangible outcome. Beauty contributes to life quality. The value is an end of itself. We need no other reason to value beauty other than the enrichment it gives to our life.

A truly beautiful person, I think, emanates that beauty from a certain soundness, a wholeness of being. A person who is living according to her values, who is courageous in his life, who brings presence and meaning to every moment — those people radiate beauty. A person who adorns their body in a way pleasing to them, in accord with their unique sense of style and self-presentation, that person fascinates and captures the eye. A beautiful person is not seeking validation from outside, he finds the source and measure of beauty within himself. Approaching life in this way can help us to feel more comfortable in our bodies, whatever their shape; less hungry for validation; and paradoxically more likely to find our beauty reflected back.

The relationship between beauty and strength reminds me of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “First Fight. Then Fiddle.” This poem is complex and beautiful and speaks to the relationship between the call to “civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace.” In one reading, the poem speaks to the strength required to master an art, to fight through obstacles and insecurities and hone one’s craft. Strength arises when we press our weakness against our resistance. To create beauty as an art, to sculpt a beautiful life, brings us into confrontation with everything that pulls us toward laziness, apathy, or obsession. Every time we press through this meeting of weakness and resistance, we find greater strength within. We realize we are capable of more.

Another reading speaks to a broader need for strength. Life calls upon us to endure and protect ourselves. Our little flame of passion, our inspiration, our first tiny breaths of air, each are dearly earned. To live the life that we desire demands that we cultivate strength. This can be a physical strength, but it is also a strength of the spirit and soul; the capacity to work through hardship; the ability to feel pain or distraction and continue on a course of action. No matter how privileged we are, something in us seeks development, and that development can be overwhelming and painful at times. This may be as simple as telling a particular person “no,” and sticking to it no matter what he does. This may be as complex as striking out and attempting to build something in our lives. This may be the strength to spend one more minute not having a cigarette, to walk away from the bar, to keep silence and stand back from the fight when it’s escalating beyond our control.

To avoid the anxiety and pain we might experience is to deprive ourselves of a meaningful and rich existence. This is not to say we should willfully suffer and exalt ourselves for suffering, but something in us responds to adversity and challenge. Beauty’s edge grows sharper when we’ve tasted adversity, failure, and victory. Each of us has adversity that can challenge us, tease out our weaknesses, and encourage us to become truly strong.