ON BEAUTY (or The Problem With the Setting Sun)

The problem with the setting sun, frankly, is that it sets. Its beauty is temporary, a magic weakened by incoming darkness. Yet tomorrow it will set again, and I will once again enjoy it. Some say that beauty is made more beautiful by its fleeting and somewhat transient nature, but if beauty could last forever, would that fact alone null its power on the subject of its radiance? If I stare at a beautiful woman for too long, she does not cease to become beautiful if I become bored, or if I decide to drop a pretty flower on the wayside while I walk instead of keeping it safe with me, it is not the beauty that has ceased but rather my interest.
See the thing is, beauty is not fleeting, but rather man’s interest. Once in awhile we find something that captures that insatiable curiosity long enough to say “I do” to forever with a beauty that’s sure to keep us interested until our eyes are worn and our spirits ready to depart, but even then our eyes keep wandering and our minds drift to other forms of beauty that will keep us on our toes and hold our minds in a trance. Were we created like this or is this a byproduct of our own fall into sin and slavery? Children don’t seem to have such a curse. They pick up a toy and drop it, one time, then the hundreth, and each time it’s as if it was the first.
But an adult is not the same. We pick up toys and drop them quickly, never to pick them up again. Boredom and anxiety take hold of our attention and the endless “what ifs” on the other side of the fence drive our worship to a thousand different objects throughout the course of a single day. Why is our attention so divided? Why after all our satisfactions do we remain so unsatisfied?
As I write this, I sit in a cafe. The beverage to my right sits cold, forgotten, half-full. I take a sip, but the taste no longer interests me; the warmth is gone, the sugar has settled at the bottom, and the once-fresh and tantalizing taste of rooibos tea with cream and sugar no longer gratifies my rampant desire for wetting my tongue. The girl in front of me who once caught my attention with her oversized sweater and long brown hair barely makes me glance her way anymore. I am uninterested, my thoughts turn to other places, and I continue to push my cart down the aisle of beauty, only glancing, never buying.
Why do I never buy? To buy is to commit, and to commit is to know, and can I be fully satisfied with something I know? See I know my pillow well, it no longer intrigues me. I know my car well, and every time I’m driving I wish for something faster. Knowledge begets boredom, and boredom begets curiosity, and curiosity demands adventure. When we were children we could have adventures in the same backyard every single day and never get tired or bored. One day the old tree would be a pirate ship, the next day a gigantic mansion, and the next day maybe a castle. Each and every day the same ordinary objects only became something more, not less. But as time grew on, our imaginations failed to fill the drives they used to fill. These drives became voids, and voids make us feel purposeless, empty, always longing, never satisfied, like the grave.
Are we graves then? Have each of us only grown up from the color of childhood to mix our own paints together and suddenly realize they’re not as brilliant as we remember them? Where are all the bright reds and happy yellows? Do I paint now with deep blues and worn greys only to be true to the canvas of my heart or does the canvas lie? When I was a child, I saw everything as beautiful: the stars, the sky, the sidewalk, my mom. Now I pick and choose that I identify as beautiful. This moon is beautiful, that one is boring; that painting is beautiful, this one is dull; this woman is beautiful, that one is ugly. Who made me a judge of beauty? Do I suddenly imagine myself judge at a pageant that all the world is placed in? Dare I organize the world before me into classes and values dependent on how they compare to the idol of perfection I have carved within the temple of my own mind?
This idol, how it drives me mad. This idol, how it consumes my thoughts. Where did this idol come from and when did I create it? I did not have it when I was a child. But as I grew into a man I carved her. She was just a block of stone when I received her, around the age of 12. And to me she was perfect. She was my very own rectangle of stone, for me, only me. What a gift, thought I. How happy I would be with her. But a friend whispered a joke one day that my block of stone was simple, unattractive, ugly. His had been chiseled away at, till barely anything of it remained but a slender figure, immaculate in design, perfect in beauty.
“Mine is prettier,” he said.
And at once a standard I never previously knew came rushing into my mind, exposing all the faults and imperfections of my block of stone. It was lacking, the standard said to me. My friends all agreed. They handed me a chisel, sharpened by discontent.
And so I gently pushed the edge of the chisel into the block of stone. “Harder”, my friends said. They showed me images of beauty, too perfect to imagine, and my mind reeled under the weight of their excellence. Farther and further into the stone my chisel crept, until not much of the stone as it were before remained. There I stood, with my stone, now barely recognizable as a figure, more of a god than a woman.
Her beauty was perfect in every way, faultless before my eyes, immaculate in the selfish corners of my darkened mind. She had no scars, no stretch marks. She always smelled wonderful, laughed gracefully, and said every little word I wanted to hear.
She was my fantasy, wrapped up in dangerous desire. But I was told desire is natural, to be expected, harmless.
In a sense, yes.
Desire is natural; as it is natural to desire to eat it is natural to desire beauty, touch, sex. It is not wrong, but it is dangerous.
There are two main ways to enjoy beauty in this life that we have been given. One is to realize beauty and appreciate it, the other is to realize beauty and consume it. Both require some level of comprehension and both emit a certain level of satisfaction. But both are not always appropriate nor healthy for the individual.
Let’s start with the first. If I see a painting in an art museum, I first must understand that it is beautiful. I must entertain some level of comprehension of value for the object in front of me. Beauty does not exist without value. If beauty is not valued it becomes a product, a commodity. Then after realizing it and valuing it, I can appreciate it. I look at its colors, its tonality, the thousands of brush strokes that together put together the masterpieces in front of me. I appreciate it as beautiful. I move on to the next painting.
But suppose I am enamored by this painting. I realize it’s beautiful, I value it, and now I want it. It does me no good to simply hang on a wall in a museum hours away from where I live. I hurriedly rush up to the painting, rip it off the wall, the brackets and screws loosening bits and pieces of drywall into the air, and I run out of the building with the painting under my arm, alarms screaming after me.
What have I done?
I have failed to appreciate beauty. Instead I have desired it and then consumed it.
And in my consuming of it I have wrought destruction.
But this is what I was told to do.
The world taught me, ever since I was young, that to be human is to consume. I learned that if I ever wanted to be happy, I needed to fulfill my desires. But what were my desires? Everything you see that you want, said the world. Everything? Everything. If you want that toy, get that toy. If you want that car, get that car. If you want the girl, get that girl. But I am unsatisfied with beauty in my life.
I go on a hike and I can’t stop taking pictures. Is it because I find the scenery so beautiful or is it because I must have it? I can’t consume scenery so I do the next best thing: I take a thousand pictures of the same treeline, over and over again. There! I conquered it. I saw it and I desired it and now I have consumed it. But still my desire for beauty rages on like a fire fed by a violent wind.
The devil’s beauty is always beauty to consume. In portraying beauty as something to consume and not something to appreciate or respect or adore, value, cherish, he twists the very image of God into a product we must consume to be satisfied with. This is why his hands are most involved in the porn industry, Hollywood, and sex slave trade. If he can make us believe his lie that beauty is a product, not a process or a person, then he has successfully propagated and reproduced the same lie he conceived back in the garden: that in order to fully be satisfied as a person you must consume, you must act, you must rebel, you must take, take, take. The lie is that satisfaction is directly tied to consumption. It’s the same lie that traps young men into thinking that they’re only a real man if they “conquer” instead of respect, adore, and protect.
But what am I really saying by all of this? I am taking us back to the original problem we started with, back in the garden, with two naked lovers in paradise who still needed more. Beauty was more than tangible for the two of them. They were surrounded by it, they were made with it, they gorged themselves on pleasures and beauty every hour of every day. But something happened. God, knowing the danger of desire and willing that they should conquer it put a test in the midst of beauty. A tree, much like all the others, but with a simple command: do not eat of it. There it was: the very first test for human beings⸺can we simply look and not consume? Can we learn to realize beauty, and in turn appreciate and honor it? Or must we always consume that which we desire?
For the two, the answer proved to dispossess them and all of humanity the right to rule as they could have, as we could have. And in turn, we follow suit: we see beauty and we cannot simply appreciate it, we cannot steward and cherish it honorably. We see beauty and we covet, we lust, we consume. And after the ordeal, we still are left with bellies full of beauty, lacking satisfaction. Why? Why are we never satisfied with what we consume?
It is the human condition.
We are insatiable.
And this makes the pursuit of beauty a most tragic one. We will never find the beauty we seek. Not because it is not available, but because our spirits will always long for more, our hearts will always burn for greater beauty than the beauty in front of us.
And so in yearning for more, we find a greater longing to be filled than simply the physical longing for beautiful sex, beautiful food, or beautiful scenery or music. We find that beauty is more than this, or at least this is what our great yearning tells us. As Descartes explained in his ontological arguments from the 1600s, our idea of a greater, perfect being is quite enough proof that there is one. The very idea that God exists is proof enough that he does exist. In the same way, the very idea, or longing, for a greater and more fulfilling beauty is proof enough that is exists.
This is why we are never satisfied. This is why the sun always sets. This is why the beverage is cold and my eyes don’t find the girl in front of me interesting anymore. What I am searching for in each one of those things is not the things itself, but rather a shadow of what it is made of, or rather, who made it. Of course, I am drawing a most obvious conclusion. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
We cannot reproduce that which has not been yet produced in us. We have been created, therefore we create. We are filled with life, therefore we live. We have been sought after, therefore we search. We are longed after by the Beautiful One, therefore we long for Beautiful One, simplified in our search for beauty. We are never satisfied with the beauty we find because we have not found the Beautiful One. Even then and when we find Him, we are eternally at a state of dissatisfied satisfaction. When we drink of his Beauty, we thirst for more. What we find in Him only intensifies our hunger for more.          Even in eternity, we will forever be in this state of search and discovery. There will always be that subtly strong thought, embedded within our spirit that continually says “there is more!”. The unhealthy approach to dealing with this is rejection, frustration, lack of commitment, and lust. The healthy approach is to realize, finally, that there is more, and it is found not within the next cup of tea, the next sunset, or the next relationship, but it is found within the beautiful, ever-growing depths of the beauty we’ve been longing for ever since our first breath, Jesus, the Beautiful One.
He alone is the definition of beauty, and our hearts ache until we find Him.
May we find Him, and continue to find Him.

 

 

“Honor and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.”

Psalm 96:6

 

2 thoughts on “ON BEAUTY (or The Problem With the Setting Sun)

  1. This. This is so real and poignant and insightful. I pray often that He renews a sense of wonder, which all too often fades into familiarity. Thanks for writing with heart and passion… I’m so glad I stumbled across your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

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