We all take an interest in wild, beautiful places, and people we’ve decided are similarly wild and beautiful from furtive, cursory glances. We get a sense of iconography, of mystery, the symbolism of a broad leafed tree that looks so picturesque it seems like it was stamped onto the sunset or the softness of a stranger’s gaze between stressed commuters on a busy morning. These things delight us, change our everyday, and in these moments, we are moved.
Our romantic notions defend us against the inner workings of things: the ecologies of state parks or our favorite neighborhood bars. Our romantic notions defend us against what might cause us to turn up our noses, and feel like we’re actively decomposing and fundamentally flawed.
Unless accompanied by some narrative that makes an image, idea or person feel holistic, most of us would prefer a thorough glossing over. It’s easier to hold someone’s hand and smile than it is to argue with them, to understand the blood and guts of why they are the way they are. This is not a critique of people in general, or of today’s (post)modern age. It is not that our attention spans are too short, we’re on our phones too often, or any other tired criticism of how people in 2016 have decided to live their lives.
Rather, in this piece, I simply propose to define our notion of beauty as a survival instinct.
It might feel hollow to do so. There would be a certain bleakness to the thought if it went otherwise unexplored. We champion natural lushness, chance encounters, sun flared dreams of what the future could be set against a background of greenery, because these are things that are not rotting in front of us. It is mental self preservation to avoid the “insides” of things. We compartmentalize our thoughts, our aesthetic leanings, put people and places into storage lockers and decided that we’ll deal with them on the basis of convenience.
But when we discover our capacity to understand deeply, and to face decay, fallen trees, stomach linings, and the stretching of skin over pointy joints; there is profundity. Such is love, the immersive and swallowed whole world.
There is something to be said about looking at someone, or something in its entirely graceless, red eyed and scrubbed clean state. To see something naked in an entirely overgrown state and feel pricked by tingly awe, love as it flows like water from a bathroom sink at 2:00 in the morning. That might be magical, transcendent and utterly psychedelic. Notions of divine love, of third eyes, energies, coupled with their stone soup of eastern religion that so many westerners have loved to embrace might amount to this feeling.
This is the feeling that charming old ladies with purple crystals in the desert and fortune tellers fanning out tarot cards were really selling. Any self help book or exercise in positivity is not only contingent on appreciation of the world, but rather, appreciation that comes from unabashed understanding.
When we see ideas and things and people as they are, stripped of metaphors and stage lighting, and find ourselves overwhelmed by deep connection, humor and gratitude. This is not ironic appreciation, sighed out between drags of cigarette smoke, but rather a deluge of unexplained fondness and curiosity.
After all, it is likely that the experiences of tracing the space between someone’s shoulder blades, and peeling tree bark back to reveal a film of sap are universally sublime.