Beauty as therapy
Sitting at my computer building an online jigsaw puzzle. Glancing out the window at the front yard. A sense of peace and contentment settles in my soul. I say a quick prayer of thanks to God for the Beauty, both man-made and natural, in this world. When I’m struggling with stress and surrounded by suffering, beauty has a calming and uplifting effect.
Music soothes the savage beast. A familiar saying based on William Congreve’s words, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Vivid images testifying to the power of this form of beauty. King Saul experienced this truth firsthand when David played his harp for him (1 Samuel 16:14-23).
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Another familiar saying, from the poem Endymion by John Keats. My favorite line: “In spite of all, some shape of beauty moves away the pall from our dark spirits.”
I choose individual online jigsaw puzzles based on the beauty that strikes me as I scroll through the many options. When I started doing yard work several years ago, I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed it. Part of that pleasure comes from watching beauty spring from my fingertips as I pull ugly weeds or rake up dead leaves or trim a ragged bush.
During my first depressive episode, creating beauty was life-saving. When the suicidal thoughts raged through my brain, drawing me ever closer to the edge of the cliff, I discovered that playing my flute, writing, or doing needlework infused my soul with a sense of calm and peace, pulling me gently back. A witness to the truth of Keats’ words.
Several years ago, researchers reported that people who make their beds when they get up in the morning are happier than those who don’t. I wonder if the act of making the room a little more beautiful lifts up their spirits.
When the Sudoku craze started, psychologists questioned why so many Americans who weren’t typically attracted to recreational mathematics and logical thinking were suddenly taking up a hobby that involved analytical reasoning. And enjoying it. Studies soon revealed that successfully solving a puzzle activates the pleasure centers in the brain, triggering a sense of well-being. Puzzle-solving creates a kind of beauty where there was once disorder or imbalance or emptiness. We’re physically wired to find enjoyment and peace in creating that beauty.
Art and beauty
So what happens to a nation that considers it a virtue to tarnish those things that were once used to beautify? When novels are written to expose the gritty side of life. When happy endings are seen as unrealistic and therefore unartistic. When discord is considered a more sophisticated form of music than harmony. When the most critically-acclaimed visual arts employ harsh lines and depressing colors.
How will a person living in such a culture respond? Maybe by turning to more damaging forms of stimulation, such as drugs and pornography, in an effort to feed those pleasure-center brain cells that are starving from a lack of beauty. Maybe by obsessing about human beauty.
Many years ago, I decided to stop reading most twentieth-century literature. Up to that time, I’d reasoned that if the critics praised it, I should check it out. But on the whole it’s depressing. I can get enough of that in real life. And I can find other sources of high-quality art without turning to those that I know will bring me down.
Barry Manilow’s upbeat tunes were panned by the critics as less artistic than the edgy music of his time. But forty years later, I heard a reviewer on the radio comment that Manilow was a much more talented singer and songwriter than he had ever been given credit for in the past.
It took the passage of time to appreciate the beauty that Manilow had created. It took stepping away from his contemporaries’ idea that good art would challenge our beliefs, wake us up to the problems around us, open our eyes to the difficulties in life. Is that the best use of art? Don’t we come face-to-face with the ugliest realities often enough without deliberately using our sources of man-made beauty for such a purpose?
At the same time, the greatest examples of beauty don’t deny the fallen side of life. The beauty of nature includes lions who hunt helpless zebras and tear them to shreds when they catch them. The loveliest paintings need shadows to complement the light. A beautiful novel requires painful conflict.
A crucial part of the most beautiful story of all, God’s provision for the salvation of His creation, was the brutal death of His Son. Real beauty doesn’t gloss over the pain and suffering. To be truly beautiful, art must be based on the realities found in a broken world. But to be uplifting, to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains and soothe our souls, it must also provide harmony and hope. In Philippians 4:8, Paul advises us to think about the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Our Lord knows the benefits of reflecting on that which is beautiful.
At this time of uncertainty and suffering and pain and grief, I give thanks to God for the beauty around me. His incredible Word. Sunsets and stars. Flowers and kittens. The internal beauty of people who reflect the image of God. A well-written novel. A pretty painting. A hymn that’s stood the test of time. And I give thanks for the opportunity to create a little bit of beauty of my own.
The Blessing of Beauty
Beauty as therapy