The Day I Really Saw Beauty

Emanations of the Philosophy of Life Instinct

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It was a balmy evening, and we were strolling on a beach in South Goa. The sun low on the horizon was casting a golden glow over the Arabian sea, a few straggling trawlers, swaying palms, and feathery clouds. A river entered the sea nearby, birds were squawking and diving, and a few people were enjoying the gentle breeze.

‘What a beautiful scene,’ I said to my friend, Li, walking with me.

‘It isn’t,’ he replied. Now I know Li is prone to saying the most unexpected things, but this was a bit much.

‘Come on, Li! Just look at everything. It’s so lovely,’ I protested, ‘Why would you say it’s not beautiful?’

‘No, you look at it, but this time detach yourself from everything specific,’ he said, looking at me intently.

I tried but became even more mindful and ‘in’ the moment. ‘I don’t get it; if I try to not think of myself, all that’s happening is I am feeling even more peaceful and pleasant,’ I thought.

Li could see I was perplexed. He gently moved an outstretched hand in an arc around the view and said, ‘For a moment, forget what you think of the scene. Instead, feel the totality of the sea, beach, trees, sky, clouds, birds, people, and fresh air. Now close your eyes, think what you’re feeling, and tell me.’

‘Joy,’ I replied.

‘Okay, and what else?’ he asked.

‘Peace, contentment, relaxation,’ I told him.

‘And have you had enough of being here this evening?’ he queried.

‘No way. I wish we could be here longer and didn’t have to leave in a couple of days,’ I replied.

‘But what if the same beach was unclean and crowded, the river dirty, the birds sickly, the trees stumps, the clouds stormy, and the breeze stank?’ he put to me with a smile.

‘Why, you’ve made the scene awful’, I said with dismay, ‘Why’d you do that?’

He motioned for us to sit down on the edge of a firm bank of sand running parallel to the beach.

‘Why did you feel one’s beautiful and the other dreadful then?’ Li asked, with a hopeful glance at me.

‘I suppose one is good for me, the other harmful, is that what you mean?’ I asked with a growing appreciation of what he was trying to make me see.

‘Beauty is what’s good for life, and that’s all it is,’ Li said with a laugh.

‘Right, I see the part about goodness, but surely it’s more than that,’ I retorted.

‘Tell me how,’ he challenged.

‘The delightful scene would be there even if no one saw it,’ I said, ‘and it would be…’ I trailed off as I realised there had to be something to sense and feel it.

Reading my mind, Li said, ‘I think you got it, right Shashi? Without a living thing to sense its value, it’s all just matter and energy in some form. The feeling, idea, and expression of beauty are created inside our minds.”

“Hmm, and what about the intelligence required?’ I wondered aloud. “Can animals see beauty, and what about fishes, insects, and microbes?’

Li replied, ‘Think about it. Other life forms share our instinct for survival, growth, and reproduction. So they, too, probably feel beauty in things that are good for them. I doubt it’s exclusive to us, but humans may find beauty in more things as we live in more diverse environments and situations. There’s a great variety of forms and characteristics in our large population worldwide. But we probably won’t find a sulphurous planet’s vistas beautiful even if there are life forms there, and they probably wouldn’t find this scene lovely,’ he ended with a chuckle.

‘I get it,’ I said with a nod, ‘and by that reckoning, beauty doesn’t have to be something special or rare, right? I guess scenes of normalcy seem lovely as they make us feel everything is okay and we’re safe. That’s the reason we feel a tiger is beautiful in the jungle. Even the barren desert can seem beautiful, and the full moon lovely on a clear night, although it’s just a cold, lifeless and inconsequential satellite of a little planet in the vast universe.’

‘But not inconsequential to us,’ Li agreed, ‘because our subconscious knows the system in which we evolved and can survive is stable and fine. That’s also why we find life-giving intangibles like love, kindness, and forgiveness beautiful.’

‘I understand, Li, but I know I can find something beautiful that you don’t. Why is that?’ I wondered aloud.

‘There’s a lot we have in common,’ Li replied, ‘so we agree about the beauty of many things, like the Taj Mahal or a scene in Switzerland. But life is not static machinery, Shashi. It has an unquenchable thirst to become better and better, and it does, by creating ever-changing forms of which the fittest carry on.’

I couldn’t resist chiming in, ‘Ah, so variety and difference are vital to life, and that’s why the girl I find beautiful may look plain to others, children are more beautiful to their parents, and we differ on things like art, music, and poetry.’

‘Precisely,’ agreed Li. ‘But what I want to ask you is this— what do we do with beauty? Do we just appreciate it passively, as something that’s there by chance?’

I hadn’t thought of this yet. But I knew the answer now.

‘Of course not. We don’t like to lose what’s beautiful to us. So we try to hold on to it, preserve it, nurture it.’

‘Voila,’ said Li in a satisfied tone. ‘Beauty can make us act. But don’t we often take it for granted? You would think we sense what ugliness means. Yet, amazingly, we let it in and even create it,’ Li said with a deep sigh.

‘You mean the ugliness of rubbish, hate-filled faces, war, and so on, I suppose?’ I asked.

‘All that, but also the marred beauty of a planet that looks beautiful to us in pictures from space, like a perfect shining blue marble speckled with white. It’s the beauty we are losing of ice-caps, glaciers, sparkling rivers, pristine oceans, bountiful species, weather patterns, and so much more.’ I could sense the deep and quiet sense of loss Li felt for all that’s good we were letting slip away.

The sun had set, and the sea was a deep slate broken by white-capped waves. The hotels’ glimmering lights and gardens made a gentle arc receding in the distance. It was all that it was. The beauty was in my mind. It was for me.

It was time to leave the beautiful beach and return to our lovely friends and family in our beautiful hotel.

That day my dear old friend Li showed me the true value of our sense of beauty and how precious it is. Li’s like that. He shows me things in a different light, and although I sometimes take some time to appreciate it, it’s always worthwhile. If you want to know more about this exciting person, you can read all about him here.

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