The search for GSOT is in many ways a search for beauty. What does this mean?
Beauty moves human choosing in several ways. Beauty dwells in the object of attention and simultaneously in the experience of attending. We pause and linger to enjoy beauty. In its presence attention finds rest and delight. When it departs, we try to recall how or where it might be found. When beauty peeks at us, we turn toward it, hoping to rest in its embrace again. Beauty is more, but it has at least this essential character, that it calls a person to attend, to dismiss other cares, and to appreciate.
Among all the experiences of life, what are those that may be called most beautiful? If the class of most beautiful experiences could be named, what would the name be? That name, I warrant, would deserve to be called the most beautiful word one could speak or write.
Let me suggest that people of various tongues may have this in common – that the class of most beautiful experiences is similar across language and culture – so that the name of the class of most beautiful experiences translates well from any language into any other. Would the name of that class not deserve to be called the most beautiful word in any language? And what would that name, that word, be?
Art is the name for beautiful objects or movements of human design. Yet art is the endeavor as much as the result. We live in a beautiful world, and the best artists find the grace to guide our sight, hearing, and imagination to the beauty around us – through paintings, icons, symphonies, poems, novels; through Alhambra, Taj Mahal, Chartres, sunbeams of Aton, gardens of Suzhou.
We read the great authors, and our own lives pause as we enter the experience of other minds, even fictional minds. Moving between each writer’s world and our own, we find new ways to appreciate the stories of those around us as well as ourselves.
We go to galleries to learn how to see the world – even the most ordinary things – with the eye of an artist. We attend concerts and symphonies, entering music as dormant inner chords awake and resonate in song. Togetherness forms as individual self dissolves in the experience – composers, performers, and listeners all attending to the same moments and movements of sound. In dance, the play of music and form becomes our play. We become children again.
Sum together all the minutes of enchantment in your life. When you are lucky enough to find yourself in such a passage, you can feel as if you are 3 years old, and life is new. Art and beauty belong with each other.
Art is no more than a reflection, a reformulation of nature, some would say. Nature, they say, bears the gift of beauty to us even more than art. Behold the gifts: mountains and beaches, rain forest, arctic tundra, orcas and manatees, orchids and roses, chambered nautilus, a fly’s eye.
Through color and form, sound, smell, touch, taste, and expanse, nature greets us. Through mathematics and measurement, science apprehends nature, and the result is no less beautiful – the gravitational constant, Maxwell’s equations, e=mc2, natural selection. Elegance – a word physicists use for the simplicity and profundity of universal law – describes it well. One feels humbled and thrilled at the same time. Beside the faithfulness of natural law, the most resolute human will darts and dives like a butterfly.
Art commands a high price, but nature is priceless. Nature cannot be possessed. It has to remain little more than a century to outlast any human person. Families, extending to clans and nations, may stake the boundaries of their claims, pretending to possess fields, hills, streams, and lakes, but the land outlasts all pretensions and endures. Nature remains a gift for future generations to share. Nature has a givenness and givingness that surpasses human experience.
But the durability of nature describes strength more than beauty. Perhaps there is something more beautiful than nature.
Among all creations of nature, human beings form the apex. Some have named humanity most beautiful, but I hold back from that choice. I look at myself – a tiny fraction, but a representative of what is called humanity. Thinking of myself, it perplexes me to give the name “most beautiful” to humanity. Walt Whitman may have had a soul large enough to embrace all people for a while. But the song of myself, Whitman’s song, meets contradictions, gradually grows old and frail, and at last falls silent.
Walt Whitman caught a glimpse of something. I’m just not sure he named it. Let us cast a broad net on human experience and sort the catch. Among all kinds of human experience, those suggesting will and spirit seem most alive and attractive…and we may judge these most desirable, most beautiful. Indeed look back at the descriptions of art and nature. The language is spiritual, putting into words the reception and the projection of things attending the human mind.
Could spirit be the most beautiful word? If it conjures up a shadow world of ghosts or mystical events, then spirit usually lacks beauty. Let it refer instead to personal experiences that can be described as filled with spirit. It might include religious moments – serene mindfulness, closeness to God, visions of life hereafter – but not necessarily and by no means exclusively. Spirit is so beautiful that even its ordinary manifestations bring delight. In the school-age years, think of pep rallies, bus trips, athletic competitions, and campfire skits and songs. Family reunions renew the ties of kinship. Who can forget the shoulder-to-shoulder closeness of a funeral where thoughts of grief and loss and life were shared?
The best stories from our favorite authors are those that demonstrate human spirit. In our most intimate experience with nature, resting from the climb up Enchanted Rock and surveying the hills around, it might occur to us that the essence of GSOT is spirit.
Science also can be spiritual in this sense: the scientist spends long hours in the laboratory, building on the discoveries of equally dedicated predecessors and peers. Confirmation, refinement, and application of her ideas may require the effort of future generations. Her reward includes participation in the great community of science – a spirit of common endeavor.
Art, nature, humanity, spirit. These words describe so much beauty that it’s hard to choose. But something is missing…or someone. Martin Heidegger called it “dasein” – to be there. It is to find yourself in the midst of beauty. Unless you are there, beauty is sterile, even nonexistent.
It may not require a special word like “dasein.” Much earlier in this series we gave attention to the personal pronouns I, me, we, us, and you, the little words that Daniel Dennett proposed might someday disappear from human speech. To which let us answer, no.
I, me, we, us, and you – which of these pronouns should we examine most deeply? A strong case can be made for we (along with us). Togetherness is a beautiful feeling, a life-affirming spirit. The experience we share is part of the appeal of music and dance. To travel or vacation alone is good; to travel with someone is grand. We celebrate the sacraments and ceremonies of life, which would have little meaning if attempted alone.
But the case for you is stronger yet. You reach across the barrier of individuality and make us possible, at least for a moment and often longer. You, whether singular or plural, implies at least two, as I address you, totaling a special us. Too often we comprise a group dominated by one or a few, a hierarchical corpus. When you are addressed, a whole person meets another whole person, and status disappears. You respect individual sovereignty, as we sometimes fail to do. You do not demand a single path; you make multiplicity possible.
I/we and you are sometimes considered opposites, but this is not true. The antithesis of I/we is other. Saying you is respectful, while saying other lacks respect. Thinking you looks toward another; thinking other looks away. To address another person or another group as you invokes the idea of I/we, the I/we of meeting. To say you, one must recognize a similarity of type, a kinship.
The importance of you comes so early in life that the first feelings usually cannot be remembered, as outgrown as sucking milk and soiling diapers. You – the word that infants and toddlers hear more than any other. What do you want? What did you say? Look at you! I love you. Remember? You, welcome to this life. From infancy until death, the voice of mother echoes in the sound of “you.”
The most beautiful word in any language is you. Natural wonders and human creative works may be filled with beauty. Without you, they are almost as nothing. Everything expands many-fold when we explore the world with each other and in each other. The words I have written here signify nothing in isolation, but they are offered in meeting that you may read and respond.
You are the doorway the threshold of friend and family.
You are the shoreline of a world to explore.
You are the minutes of the board once hidden.
You are my jailbreak my tunnel to freedom.
You are my sunrise.
You are the portal opening to new horizons.
You provoke my release from a tower of sufficiency.
You prompt my escape from the gated community.
You are the recess bell.
You are the reason love cascades and rolls me under
Until you rescue me.
In the richness of you, I discover an image of GSOT, an image that suggests not solely the lawgiver who made the rules that govern reality, but more fully the creator who became a person when you were created. Of all mighty works, the most significant is you, the birth of separate will.
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Header image: CC0 own photo, public domain. Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou © Frenta | Dreamstime.com. Hornworms: own photo, CC0 public domain. Vitruvian man, Leonardo da Vinci, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.