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The concept of beauty is fascinating. The word has such diverse application that it seems to have no meaning. For example, Mike Tyson fighting under Cus D’Amato was a thing of beauty. But no less beautiful was the smile of Mother Teresa, who said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
How can this be? How can the same descriptor be applied to a smasher of faces and a champion of the poor? Alas, beauty defies precise definition. We know it when we see it but we can’t quite explain it. And yet, we crave understanding because we know somehow that love follows beauty.
What Is a Beautiful Life?
The puzzle of beauty has vexed humans since ancient times. Philosophers have developed many different constructs of beauty, but I prefer the analysis of the medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote that beauty consists of three elements: consonantia, claritas, and integritas. That which is beautiful has proportion, clarity, and integrity.
It can be fun and instructive to look for proportion, clarity, and integrity in physical things around you, be it a painting, or your lover, or something from the natural world.
But for now let’s try to apply Aquinas’ analysis to life – to your life. Why bother? Well, remember that beauty begets love. It follows that if your life were beautiful, you would love living it. So now the question becomes, how can you make your life more beautiful?
Recently an executive at my company made a very contrarian statement at our annual meeting. He said, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s just life.” That statement blew my mind because it exposed a false dichotomy that bedevils nearly everyone I know. According to work-life balance, work is something you have to endure so you can enjoy the rest of your life. But if your work and your life are truly at odds, then you are essentially forfeiting a huge portion of your time on the planet. That’s a bum deal.
Does this mean you should quit your job and spend all your time surfing or playing guitar or doing other fun stuff? That would be a little drastic, and probably unnecessary. A simple attitude adjustment might be all that’s called for. What if you saw challenges at work as opportunities for growth? What if you saw work as a privilege rather than as a burden? What if you used work as training for life rather than a distraction from it? Adjust your attitude so that working becomes living. Then you will feel true balance.
Imagine you are standing in front of a dust-covered mirror. The dust prevents you from seeing your reflection clearly. Your image is muted and your light is dimmed. Because you can’t see yourself clearly you don’t know who you truly are. If you don’t know who you are, nobody else can know you either. This lack of clarity leads to alienation, isolation, and misery.
But how did the mirror get so dusty in the first place? For most people, the dust on the mirror consists of societal norms and family expectations. For instance, I come from a family of over-achieving intellectuals and spent the first half of my life trying to fit in. I went to a fancy university and became a lawyer because it was expected. What I learned from this experience is that if you lack clarity of self, you also lack clarity of purpose. When you lack clarity of purpose, life becomes very tedious indeed.
At some point you have to learn to shut out other people’s baggage. The effect is like wiping dust off the mirror. A clean mirror will reflect your light and you will begin to see who you truly are. When you can see yourself clearly, your life will also clarify and become more beautiful and purposeful.
In Aquinas’ usage, the concept of integrity describes an integrated whole with nothing missing. A whole person consists of body, mind, and spirit. Body and mind are pretty easy to figure out. You train your body through rigorous movement. You train your mind through rigorous thought. The spirit is trickier. You train your spirit through stillness, which is something we all seem to lack.
In Western cultures, the lack of stillness is astounding. Every second of every day is filled up with some form of stimulation, from blinking screens to blaring radios to howling babies. If you tried to check out and find stillness, where would you even look? Do you have a refuge from the noise?
For me, the only time I can find stillness is the early morning before my kids are up. I wake up at 4:30am and use the quiet time for reflection and meditation. Waking up at 4:30am is not great. Nevertheless, I make the time for myself because over the years I discovered that lack of stillness mutes my spirit in the same way that lack of movement withers my muscles. Only as a whole person — intact in body, mind, and spirit — can I appreciate life and see the beauty in it.
Real Beauty vs. Skin-Deep Beauty
Have you ever experienced excitement to meet someone who is outwardly beautiful only to be repelled when they open their mouth and venom spews out? Beauty is in fact skin deep, and this applies to lives as well as faces. Sadly, our popular culture seems to consist entirely of beautiful zombies living ugly and toxic lives. They’re everywhere.
But every once in a while you run across one of those unusual people who may not be outwardly beautiful but is nevertheless incredibly magnetic, attractive, and appealing. He or she may have a crooked nose or big ears, but you ignore those things because of the person’s inner light. These people have lives of proportion, clarity, and integrity. Their lives are beautiful and they love living. You can’t hide the light inside them.