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On Finding the Beautiful

By March 9, 2013 No Comments

Debra Rienstra has asked Abby Zwart to serve as a guest blogger today. Abby is a senior Secondary Education-English major at Calvin College. She is Editor in-Chief of the student newspaper, Chimes.

I’m a collector of quotations. Cliche for an English major, I know. But there’s one in particular that’s stuck with me since early high school.

Emerson says, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

There are so many ways I could organize and discuss the idea of beauty. The word is used in so many contexts and with varying levels of depth and complexity. An adroit way for me to wrap my mind around the subject, though, is to think about visible and invisible beauty.

Visible beauty is what probably comes to mind first. We see beautiful people, beautiful art, beautiful nature. There’s the elegant way a thin, tall tree clears its throat quietly to interrupt a panorama. Or the way that in winter, everything takes on a sharp outline against the carpet of snow, the reverse of a flashlight pinprick in the dark. We see beauty when someone waits far too long to hold the door for us. Or when we let our roommates eat that last piece of coffee cake or when we buy a blue shirt because it’s the same color blue as the sky in that painting we saw in a textbook.

Invisible beauty is beauty of the spirit, perhaps even the fruit of the spirit. It’s the love we have for each other and the joy we take in the little things and the peace we hold on to in busy times. It’s patience when we’re frustrated, kindness when it won’t be reciprocated, and belief in the goodness of people. Faithfulness to our values and loved ones, gentleness in manners, and self-control when we’re anxious — these are all manifestations of beauty. You can’t take a picture of invisible beauty, but when friends picture you, these things will come to mind.

I think Emerson, while a gifted naturalist with a keen eye for visible beauty, is primarily speaking of invisible beauty when he says that we are always on the hunt for striking things in life. He knows that it’s human nature to search for people who bring us peace, who are faithful, who love us, and who demonstrate patience and self-control.

But, he says, we can’t find that unless we’re first willing to acknowledge it within ourselves. “We must carry it with us.” This is the part I love best. If I don’t know what it looks and feels like to have patience or joy, I’ll be hard pressed to find those things around me. It’s like trying to read before you know the alphabet.

I’ve used this quote for years to inspire me to look inward when I get discouraged. It reminds me to take notice of little movements inside myself, to be mindful of my mood and attitude.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking beyond the quote. There is a responsibility, it seems to me, to share beauty once I’ve found it. If I only live according to Emerson’s mantra, I’m living a quintessentially selfish life. To only gather up all of the beauty I can find, both in myself and then in the world around me, is to live in a way that is not beautiful to begin with. Once I discover something delightful, it’s up to me to find a way to share it.

How do we share beauty? Just live that fruit of the beautiful spirit. Display love, joy and peace. Share patience, kindness and goodness. Have faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Other people, whether you’re aware of it or not, will notice. They’ll learn about beauty through you. You never know who’s watching.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

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