Devotional | Beauty and Ugliness.

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“So few things blaze. So little is beautiful. Our world doesn’t seem equipped to contain its brilliance too long. Ecstasy is only recognizable when one has experienced pain. Beauty only exists when set against ugliness. Peace is not appreciated without war ahead of it”

Stewart Sloan in a letter to the Winslows, October 12th, 1995

A few days after the actor James Dean’s death, his close friend Stewart Sloan wrote a letter to Mr and Mrs Winslow, James Dean’s uncle and aunt that had raised him. It’s a beautiful account of love for a friend, and the processing of a mourning heart after an untimely death.

As I read the letter earlier this week, the phrase above stuck out to me, and I remembered a conversation I had a long time back. My friend and I were talking about heaven, how it will be, what we will feel like, what we will do. That beautiful place where we get to see Jesus face to face, where every tear will be wiped away, where we will only know true and pure joy.

But this didn’t seem to fit with my friend. “How can we really know joy and happiness without the contrast of pain?” she asked. How can we know peace without the absence of it? Surely we won’t appreciate how happy we are without the frequent challenges to our happiness that we have here in daily life on earth.

I couldn’t answer my friend at the time, but something in me felt uneasy at this idea. That beauty is only beautiful because ugliness exists. That wholeness is only sweet because pain exists. That we must have frequent reminders of the bad to appreciate the good. I’m just not sure it’s really made to work like that. If we are to spend eternity delighting in the presence of our good Father, I don’t believe that we will only be able to fully delight if we have frequent reminders that there’s also a lot of bad around.

I’ve contemplated on this idea a lot over the years.

When I read Stewart Stern’s letter I had the same feeling: This sounds kind of right, but I don’t know if it’s true. But this time, I began to realise I had more of an answer, as to why I don’t think happiness can only be felt in contrast with sadness, and that answer is in the practice of thankfulness.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18, I am learning to consciously choose thankfulness in my daily life.

I’ve been practicing it for about 3 years now. In different ways and at different times, I try to frequently list the good things in my life. From the immense, all-changing experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To the joy of my favourite pair(s) of shoes. (I can’t really limit it to one pair), or a kind text message, or eating a delicious piece of cheese.

This practice has really changed me. I’ve become better at looking out for the good stuff. When I started out, I found it hard to list 5 good things, and to be earnestly thankful for them. But the more I’ve practiced, the longer my list gets. The more I can go on and on and on telling you about all the good things Jesus has done for me and all the blessings that surround me. I do have a pretty good life. But I don’t think that it’s drastically changed in recent years; rather that the way I look at it has changed. My eye has become more trained to look out for the good.

I’m not an expert in thankfulness, but as I’ve got better at it, I can celebrate life way better than I used to be able to.

This is where I come back to Stern’s letter and the conversation with my friend. Yes, it seems true that “So little is beautiful” and that “Our word doesn’t seem equipped to contain its brilliance too long.” Perhaps it is true that the constant reminder of hurt, pain and sadness in our world gives us a valuable contrast to the delightful things, so that we can really see them.

But what if we just have an untrained eye for beauty?

What if we are not practiced at looking out for it, so that we are only able to understand peace when the racing stress of modern life slows down?

What if, when we are in eternity with our beloved, we might lose our tunnel vision, our one-sided way of looking at good vs. evil?

What if we might be able to enjoy every part of our King to the fullest degree, without any hint of the bad stuff to contrast or remind us that what we really have is great?

I often practice thankfulness to help me focus back on Jesus, away from my problems. But I’ve also experienced gratitude bringing me extra joy even when everything is going well. It’s helped me see God’s goodness and beauty more than ever before. And perhaps that’s how it’ll be in heaven.

What do you think? Do we have to see ugliness to appreciate beauty? What makes you appreciate beautiful things?