Creating a beautiful life
Updated: Aug 9, 2018
The late John O’Donohue, a poet, theologian, and philosopher, once said of beauty that it ‘isn’t all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming… [it] is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.’
When I first heard it, I was bewitched by this definition of beauty. I tend to work in lists, not poetry, so I had to think pretty hard about what a ‘homecoming for the enriched memory of my unfolding life would be.’
For several days I looked at many things and people and asked myself if they were enriching the memory of my unfolding life. It’s like asking Marie Kondo's ‘does this bring me joy’ not just of unused sporting equipment and old magazines but of every single thing and person and moment that passed my way until I was (beautifully) bone tired.
It’s a strange exercise obviously — stranger still when I would ‘hear’ the immediate and resounding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and despite my certainty, suddenly feel very surprised. I learned a great deal about what made my life beautiful — and what did not. I learned that if I was really listening I always knew the answer right away — until it would change if I looked at it another way.
There were many things in my life that were not so beautiful. I don’t mean dirty dishes and that spot where my dog ate the wall, I mean stuff I’d gotten into the habit of doing, saying, and thinking that on the briefest reflection I realized I couldn’t think why. I realized I did not want some things in my life when I looked back to see if it was beautiful or not.
I also realized the beautiful things I was taking for granted, like the color of fresh beet soup (!), the way light pours into our way too small bathroom, the way my neighbor is always on her porch rain or shine, and the reliable sense of humor of a great friend (who asked for some of what I must be smoking when I shared all of this with her).
I wondered finally if this is — despite our ratty socks and dusty houses — the kind of beauty that we are all seeking. Not only the gift of having the people and experiences in our life that nourish us, but also the reassurance that what we do, who we are, what we contribute will add up to the life we are trying to unfold. Perhaps deep down we all want to know that we are beautiful in a way that matters.
The most beautiful thing I realized while (soberly, I swear!) contemplating all of this was that almost nothing fit O’Donohue’s definition of ‘an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth’ than hard struggle. Nothing stood out more than grief, breakdown, fear, loss, and failure. What followed was often a thing of such dark and wondrous beauty either for what was catalyzed, clarified, or demanded, that I felt grateful for things I’d never wanted and would never wish on others.
I tried to grasp beauty and hold it in my hands but it was elusive, complex, and changing constantly — the sun dropping beyond the horizon, my dog wiggling away grumpily — until I realized that perhaps the most beautiful thing of all was the question itself and the way the answer would surprise me and then disappear or change from ‘no way’, to ‘yes, of course, how could I not see that before?’
Creating a beautiful life might be just about asking yourself honestly what that would be for you, and then learning to notice and create your life with that definition in mind — all the while knowing that the reason this matters most is because you cannot hold on to it.
What has made your life beautiful?