Beauty Will Save the World

J A N U A R Y    2 0 1 9

When I was young I’d watch my mother preparing lunches every morning for about thirty black kids who went to a free pre-school near us. Their families had scarcely enough money to feed their children, so my mother raised money or used her own to buy the bread and beauty will savepeanut butter, the eggs and mayonnaise and milk for their lunches. The house would fill with the smell of cookies baking early in the mornings. Then she’d pack it all in cardboard boxes, carry them down the back steps, put them into the trunk of her car and drive off to the school. She’d feed the kids, wipe their noses, sing little songs to them, and then drive home. She didn’t make a big deal out of it.

My mother is long gone now, but when I remember those scenes — her hands buttering the slices of bread all laid out in pairs on the counter, or lifting the boxes into the trunk of her car — I feel their beauty — there is no other way to say it. How beautiful were her simple, honest movements! I don’t mean beauty in the sense of pleasing appearance, but something both within and beyond appearance. Goodness.

Plotinus said it well: “There is no beauty more real than the goodness one sees in someone.”

My mother died on New Year’s Day twenty-nine years ago, and yet — how wonderful! — this feeling of her beautiful selfless offering, this goodness which wasn’t actually “hers” but was something greater which she gave herself to, is alive now and resonates in my soul.

I know if my mother, a practical woman, could hear me talk like this, she’d give me a look and tell me to help carry the boxes. She wasn’t trying to save the world; she was just doing what she could because she could.

But the beauty I recognize in her actions did save the world. It’s what always does. For me, this is the meaning of Dostoevsky’s enigmatic line, “Beauty will save the world.” Recognizing this good beauty in the actions of people around us, we are touched by a force that transcends the outer forms of what we usually think of as “beautiful.” Indeed, those more tangible forms of beauty first trained us in beauty’s mystery and power, and continue to do so. But they hold the potential to lead us to an even more profound recognition of the possibilities of human evolution and the human spirit.

I realize that using words such as “beauty” and “goodness” in these nervous and cynical times risks being dismissed as mere sentiment and superficiality. Our culture is entranced by the fearsome, and has come to value a tough-minded realism and even pessimism as more reliable ways to negotiate through life. But if healing from the dark condition of human selfishness is to come, it will not come from that kind of contraction.

I believe most of us can recognize in our experience the “beautiful goodness” I’m pointing to. It doesn’t mean that the people who have revealed it to us (or even ourselves) are always beautiful and good. We rise to it, and fall, and rise again. My point is that this very beauty, and the goodness that is its source, is what heals and “saves” the world, and that we can take heart in that truth. It is true — the Good, the True, the Beautiful. We can have faith in it, for it is ultimately of cosmic proportions — what some have called the Divine Breath that continually brings everything into being.

But to come back down to earth, and to the image of my mother buttering that bread, I’ll end here with the words of a grace she liked for us to sing on festive occasions, since this is New Year’s Day and we need all the grace we can get. It’s sung to the melody of “We Shall Overcome.”

All our food is good today,
all of life is good today,
everything that is is good today.
The future is open for us to create
so let us all give thanks today.