EMBODY is my "word of the year" for 2018. It's become a pillar for me and came as the culmination of a long, negative "relationship" with my body that I have been vigilantly trying to correct, understand, walk into joy with, and hopefully help any like me along the way.
1. The Realization of The Body (The Literal Embody)
2. Embodying What Is Beautiful
3. Comparing and Contrasting Beauty and Sexual/Physical Desirability
4. Practical Steps
5. The Creativity and Artistry of Bodies
6. The Embodiment of Others
Before I could get into the thickest cut of meat in my soul, I had to step back and answer some fundamentals.
Before being able to figure out “Why do I have this unquenchable thirst to be physically desired and thought of as beautiful?” or “Why does not having as much of it as I want, or as much as others have, make me spiral into sickening wallow?” or “Why can’t I do something (lasting) about it if I care so much?” or “Does physical beauty even matter at all? Isn’t it about the inside anyway? Should I just learn to turn this off?” or “If it doesn’t matter, really, what’s the harm of absolutely giving myself to being the most culturally-ideal version of myself possible?” or “Gawd, why do I hate my body so much? I want to be pretty/thin/beautiful/sexy so bad.” I had to answer:
What is beauty?
Like love, people use the word to communicate such different concepts.
That’s a beautiful sunrise!
That’s a beautiful presentation of garden vegetables!
That’s a beautiful limerick!
That’s a beautiful set of lady legs!
That’s a beautiful baby name!
That’s a beautiful story you told!
That’s a beautiful flowering tree in a city!
That’s a beautiful sensation on my clean, bare feet!
That’s a beautiful smile!
That’s a beautiful masterpiece of paint!
That’s a beautiful chemistry moving to salsa music!
That’s a beautiful piece of dead cow!
That’s a beautiful combination of air, brain waves, throat, and ear drums!
That’s a beautiful grief.
That’s a beautiful pair of breasts!
That’s a beautiful woman in labor.
That’s a beautiful royal Highness in her palace.
That’s a beautiful athletic achievement.
That’s beautiful intellectual genius.
That actually tastes so beautiful my body has chills and I practically have tears in my eyes. I’m moaning. Let me mash more of that around with my saliva and molars upon my tongue.
How can the same word be used for all these? What binds them together? Does it detract from any given electric, pink sunset in Tampa that there is an even better sunset happening in Fiji, or that The Northern Lights exist? Is beauty a threat to itself? Is it really important that it be graphed, charted, lined up in order of rank, and critiqued on the spot? Or can beauty just… be. Even in the slightest degree. And in it’s is-ness… can it just be appreciated? Adored even? Hunted for and blissfully discovered anywhere? Even *if* a greater source of it exists elsewhere?
Why is it devastating to so many to not be “the most” of it, especially physically? Can being just one of the physically-beautiful (or in certain ways physically-beautiful) people in the world be enough? All the while being able to admit there are plenty of other beauties, including many far greater ones? Why do we have to live in denial to be “at peace” with ourselves? (Spoiler alert: it’s not working)
Lots of questions, as you can see.
Here now enter: My Podcast Warriors.
I’ve listened to it, oh, maybe 10 times since then? It’s Stephen Roach interviewing Brian Zhand on his book (and life theory) that “Beauty will save the world,” which is a direct quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel “The Idiot.”
These are two Christian men discussing the essential virtue of beauty. I have never heard this before. It was ground-breaking.
“Even though we have an eye for it, and we recognize it, it’s hard to say what it actually is. But no matter what else we would say about it, beauty seems to be connected to form. So that whether it’s a poem, a painting, a song, a sculpture — it’s something about the form, the structure, the arrangement of the piece that comprises it’s beauty.” Brian Zhand
I started gasping with the connection of the dots. I’d been stuffing myself was as much “embody” as I could the past 72 hours, a word in which almost every definition includes “form”… and ‘out of the blue’ I’m hearing beauty boiled down to: the form.
“Ancient philosophers identified the three prime virtues: the true, the good, the beautiful.
As virtues they are not utilitarian. They are not a means to an end, they are an end in themselves so they need no further justification.
So we would say:
We want the true because it’s true.
We want the good because it’s good.
We want the beautiful because it’s beautiful.
Later in the church we come to understand these virtues as attributes of God himself.
We have a long history of Christian apologetics (this is a Christian defense of truth as understood through Christ.)
We also have a long history of Christian ethics (this is the good as defined in light of Christ).
Christian aesthetics, though, have had a mixed history.
There have been times when the church has been good at it, but in modernity we have, along with the wider culture, gone ahead and dismissed beauty as a prime virtue of Christ. We’ve come to think of it as mere adornment.”
[Read that again]
“In modernity we have, along with the wider culture,
gone ahead and dismissed beauty as a prime virtue.
We’ve come to think of it as mere adornment.”
“So, what does it mean for us as Christians - Christian artists and thinkers - to portray or embody beauty? How do we embody the aesthetic beauty calls for?” Stephen asks in response. Great question, sir. What does that mean? And look at that word… showing up again. Embody. The unpacking these two did of Jesus, his life, the cross, etc as the pinnacle of all beauty is just magnificent, especially since (as I noted in the previous post) “He had no outward beauty or form that we should desire him.” This seems crucial. “What is the beautiful form of Christianity? I would say it’s the cross. Which was an intentionally hideous object, devised and utilized by an occupying military empire to physiologically terrorize the populaces that it dominated.” It wasn’t physical desirability, beautiful as that may be (and is!).
As I was outlining and preparing this series over the holidays, another podcast appeared *perfectly timed* in my line-up. TED Radio Hour aired a compilation of Ted Talks on *dun dun dun!* beauty!
The episode includes parts of the following Ted Talks:
- “Are Some Things Universally Beautiful?” by Denis Dutton (a Darwinian philosopher)
- “Are We Hard Wired For Beauty?” by Nancy Etcoff (a physcologist at Harvard) and Denis Dutton
- “Does Being Beautiful Make You Happy?” by Cameron Russell (a runway and underwear model)
- “Can Beauty Change A Life?” by Bill Strickland (a community activist, author, and CEO of non-profit)
- “How Does Beauty Feel?” by Richard Seymour (a designer)
(To start just listen to this summary on TED Radio Hour , but along the way go ahead and listen to their entire presentations.)
I loved what I heard. A highlight was listening to Bill Strickland, head of Manchester Bidwell Corporation: “Manchester Bidwell combines many seemingly disparate elements – adult career training, youth arts education, jazz presentation, orchid and floral sales – into a dynamic whole with a proven record of positively changing the lives of underserved populations in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.”
These are Strickland’s words from the podcast, describing elements of his facility and training center:
“We have quilts and clay and calligraphy and everywhere your eye turns, there's something beautiful looking back at you. That's deliberate. That's intentional.
We even have flowers in the hallway, and they're not plastic, those are real. And now that I'm giving lots of speeches we had a bunch of high school principals come and see me and they said, ‘Mr. Strickland, what an extraordinary story and what a great school, and we were particularly touched by the flowers and we were curious as to how the flowers got there.’ I said, ‘Well, I got in my car and I went out to the greenhouse and I bought them and I brought them back and I put them there. You don't need a task force or a study group to buy flowers for your kids.’
Literally, students walk in the front door on any given day and there's an orchid that greets them at the front desk, which is the first thing that they see when they walk in the place. And I believe in introducing those magical moments on a work day, not just on a weekend, but on Monday morning. Many of our students who have never been in touch with orchids or seen them before, are now having them become a part of their vocabulary.
They're assuming that the world is made up of pretty things like orchids, and they're absolutely right.
And the world that they're going to enter into, they're going to be seeing a lot of orchids.”
There isn’t a student or trainee who enters Manchester Bidwell’s doors who doesn’t personally understand the reality of ugliness in this world. Strickland’s wise emphasis on convincing them there is beauty has had stunning results.
In Richard Seymour’s portion of the TED Talk he says: “We don't always understand what's beautiful until we know the story behind it, the narrative, right? Here, Look at this. What are you feeling about it?” Mr. Seymour shows to his live audience “a clearly naive picture, but that is drawn with a crayon and is of a butterfly taking off from a flower.”
He continues: “Is it beautiful? Is it exciting? I'm watching your faces very carefully. There's some rather bored looking gentlemen and some slightly engaged looking ladies. Now I'm going to tell you what it is. Are you ready? This is the last act on this Earth of a little girl, called Heidi, five years old, before she died of cancer this month. That's the last thing she did. The last physical act. Look at that picture. Look at the innocence. Look at the beauty in it. Is it beautiful now?
Stop. Stop. How do you feel? Where are you feeling this? And I'm watching your faces because your faces are telling me something. There's a lady over there that's actually crying, by the way.
I like to look at people's faces when they're reacting to things. When someone's reacting to something that they often think is exquisitely beautiful, their face isn't doing what you think it would do. You'd think, wow, they'd be sort of loving this, or there'd be a big smile on their face.
It's not like that. You've usually got steepled brows and more something that looks like pain than it looks like beauty. I think it's the bitter-sweetness,
the tension between the sweetness and the bitterness
that often creates this heightened sense of beauty in something.”
What is beauty?
“There are few synonyms for the word beautiful. The word is difficult to define. If you look up in a dictionary you’ll read it and say ‘Mmm, yeah. That’s true enough. But that still doesn’t seem to capture it.’” (Brian Zhand)
“Beauty is a particular series of sensations.” [But isn’t that the effect of beauty, I wonder?] (Richard Seymour)
Wabi-sabi, a Japanese term for “the discovery of beauty in imperfection; the acceptance of the cycle of life and death.” [Anyone else hear this on this season of Project Runway? Ha!] (And discovering beauty still doesn’t define what it is)
Vorfreude, a German word: for your pleasure (but has more to do with longing or anticipating, not “having”)
“I always hear myself saying, ‘She’s a beauty!’ or ‘He’s a beauty!’ or ‘What a beauty!’ but I never know what I’m talking about, I honestly don’t know what beauty is.” (Andy Warhol)
“We find beauty in something done well.” (Denis Dutton),
After mulling over, and not quite nailing it, and reading, talking, listening, thinking some more… I think I’m convinced that beauty is:
Form and/or narrative done well.
I think sometimes the form, even if there is hardly any story or “meaning,” just is. It’s been created so well that it is definitely beautiful.
I think there are times that form can be “less than” or at first (or second or third) glance unappealing or unattractive (like Christ), but once the narrative is told, the subject becomes beautiful.
And I think skillful narrative is a version of form, so any story or account done well is intrinsically beautiful.
So, the way that I embody (exemplify in form), and also narrate myself, my life, all that I experience and am responsible for, and The One Who Gave It All To Me is what constitutes my ability to live beautifully. To be beautiful.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
The Book of Daniel refers to “The Beautiful Land” for which they strove to enter.
In Acts a man, “lame and disabled from birth,” would be carried daily to the temple gate named (wait for it) Beautiful where he could sit and beg for money. One day, at Beautiful, in the name of Jesus, Peter commanded him to rise up and walk, he did. His feet and legs were made strong, he jumped and celebrated. “When all the people saw him walking and praising God they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.”
This is what beauty does: invokes wonder and amazement… from simple crayon drawings of a butterfly about to fly off a leaf into a new world, in a new form, by a dying girl… to orchids… to almost any kind of sunset… to absolute physical healing… to hamburgers… we see how these all connect. The well-done form and narrative needs no justification, only admiration. “Wow.”
I’m convinced this little story from Acts is an analogy for us. When we’re “the beggar” and life has inflicted it’s bitterness on us, we go (and when we can’t go ourselves, we allow to be carried), and sit at the gate named Beautiful. And we wait. Small beauties, every day. This forced sitting gives us lots of time to look around and observe. To pay attention to the world and the people, and to connect the dots. To be grateful for a few coins clinked into a little cup; to be thrilled with a spilling cup! “Wow! What a good day! Thank you.” And someday, we will be called to rise up out of our pain and limit, and walk. The form will transform, the narrative with culminate, the orchestra will soar. People will remember who you were, what you went through, and be amazed. Endure well. It is so beautiful.
And sometimes, we’re the onlookers. Life is as normal. Not paralyzing. Putting about our days. What a loss to miss out on that sort of beauty because we were too *fill in the blank.* Wonder and amazement is too good to overlook. Stop. Stop. Are you feeling this? Is it beautiful now?
“…discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.”
Don’t let it pass you by, and, for me… that means my body. Don’t let the health, the power, the miracle, the pleasure, the physical attractiveness of being 20-something and *me,* the love quite a few people have for my body pass me by. Self! Stop. Stop right now! Are you feeling this? Is it beautiful now? Don’t let it escape your detection. Don’t distractedly or numbly miss this wonder. Don’t write an ugly narrative over your form.
Embody beauty itself, and thereby be Beauty.