Martha Sahyouni, MA, LCPC" />

Unbearable Perfection: Beauty’s Potent Role in Healing and Sustaining Us

“You can look now…” I had been anticipating this moment for the last several hours of the drive across Utah —to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. Crossing the parking lot a few minutes earlier, I had decided I would look down until I reached the overlook. Everyone had warned me that there was nothing like it, that I should be ready to be amazed.

Even with these warnings beforehand, the moment I looked up was similar to a time when I had been unexpectedly hit by a wave in the Atlantic Ocean: it had sneaked up behind me, pulled me into the surf, and tossed me onto the sand without warning. Just like that day, I was stunned and overwhelmed, pierced by emotions for which I did not have words, but which came through in the silent tears I tried to hide from public view.

Philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.” Witnessing the beauty of the Grand Canyon felt like that to me — almost unbearable. It was as if my limited self and the categories I had created in my mind were not large enough to contain it. I thought I knew what to expect, and I was wrong. Something had come along and surpassed my expectations to such a degree that I could not help but feel impacted.

That is part of what makes beauty such a powerful thing: it causes us to be moved, to be altered in some way. By reminding us of a reality that goes beyond our limited ego-bound selves, it has the ability to resuscitate parts of us that have been deadened by the daily stresses and disappointments of life. Beauty wakes us up, reminds us of our desire, and as American poet Mary Oliver put it, “makes us ache to be worthy of it.”

While seeing the Grand Canyon was an unforgettable experience of beauty, I can also think of many ordinary moments when beauty has unexpectedly stirred me: a striking display of wildflowers by the edge of the road, an elderly couple contentedly sitting side by side on a park bench, an exquisite mural painted onto an overpass. It is at those moments of everyday beauty that I am moved past my anxious worry, beyond whatever stress or loss I may be dwelling upon, to a sense of calm. In that moment of connecting with beauty it seems that “all manner of things will be well” and that life’s meaning is restored.

When I think back to my Grand Canyon moment, I can see now why it was so affecting. It came at a time of sorrow in my life and a time where I was carrying a heavy sense of loss. In addition, I had been stressing about travel arrangements, packing and other nagging worries. When I finally put all of that aside and just took in the landscape, everything I had been carrying came into perspective, eclipsed by the play of light and color, and the reminder that my life is just part of something greater. I felt restored and consoled.

While that healing moment came unexpectedly, I have learned that I can be intentional in seeking out such moments. For example, I can choose to take a walk through my neighborhood when my mind will not slow down; or I can sit for a few minutes in the morning and just be still, taking in the view from my window, especially on those days when I am tempted to anxiously rush into my to-do list. Focusing on the simple beauty of my surroundings can ground me not just for that moment, but help me cultivate a more mindful and serene attitude for the rest of the day.

When I intentionally seek out beauty in these small ways, it may not seem to make much of a difference initially. This is true of any self-care practice one may try to incorporate for the first time. But if I do it repeatedly, I know that something will gradually shift. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” By focusing on beauty, I deepen that mental path — the path that helps me be more present to my life and more able to appreciate everything that is good in the world, rather than just focusing on what is bad.

And what better time than this, when there is so much going wrong in our society and the world, to seek out the healing balm of beauty? This is a moment in our collective experience when it seems like the majority of what we see, hear and read is negative, anxiety-provoking and soul-depleting. Nearly every image we see on our computer and phone screens seems to be designed to either activate our fears or our anger. This is a time when we desperately need beauty. We need it to give us a vision of something better than what is. We need it to calm our emotions and provide them with a sense of rest and peace.

Trauma and public health research is now exploring what intuition and the rituals of so many cultures have always pointed to: the idea that beauty has the power to heal even the deepest of wounds. A meta-analysis published in 2014 in Trauma, Violence and Abuse titled “The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in the Treatment of Traumatized Adults: A Systematic Review of Art Therapy and Trauma” looked at many recent studies involving the use of art to treat individuals who have been affected by trauma. The study concluded that the evidence that art therapy could help traumatized individuals was compelling enough to point to “the urgent need for further research on art therapy and trauma treatment.” Other reviews of research done in the area of public health come to similar conclusions: that art and experiences of beauty can make a difference in health outcomes for a variety of diseases and health conditions.

These studies and others like them underline the fact that experiencing beauty is not just a nice thing to add into our lives, but that beauty is essential to our wellbeing. Without it, we easily lose our connection not only to parts of ourselves — those parts that are encoded in the non-verbal neural networks of the right brain that become stimulated by art, music and imagery — but we also lose connection to each other as human beings. For what is art or music or a breathtaking view but a common language that every person from any country, race or background can share and understand?

With this in mind, let us be purposeful in mining the beauty that is all around us, and in creating beauty in whatever way we can. Let us take pause in our busy lives to appreciate a sunset, the smile of a loved one or a lovely meal. If we can do that individually, even in the smallest of ways, we may tap into much needed nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls. We may even find some surprising relief from our stress, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, if we do that collectively, by championing the preservation and cultivation of beauty in our world, we can perhaps bring some light back into the darkened landscape of our social fabric. Beauty can then tether ourselves to each other and to that which can only be felt in the moments when we look out onto that unbearable perfection.

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