Balance as Beauty

“Balance as Beauty,” Bob Ryder

READINGS
Khalil Gibran quotes…

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.

Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.

REFLECTION
How would you describe your circumstances when things feel balanced in your life? For that matter, how would you describe circumstances when things are out of balance for you? What are the habits and ideas, the approaches to relationship, and just as importantly what are the invitations and perhaps temptations to which you say “no thank you” that help you maintain some sense of well-being, that cause you to feel confident in and maybe even proud of your place in the world?

When our worship planning team chose “What Does it Mean to be a People of Beauty?” as our theme for the next few weeks, the first thing that occurred to me was “balance.”  Balance is a beautiful thing, and beautiful phenomenon.  I’m thinking about equilibrium, homeostasis, maintaining a set of mutually supportive activities and attitudes that keep you going.  Balance in the sense I’m thinking of it is giving attention and energy to a well-selected set of priorities that meet our physical, mental, and spiritual needs, each taking a certain amount of one resource even as it provides access to another resource that facilitates giving energy and attention to still another activity that fulfills yet another need, on and on in a balanced cycle.  You go to work and spend time and energy to get money.  You go to the store and spend money to get food.  You eat food and get energy to go to work, to get money, to get food, to get energy, and so forth – three complimentary activities balanced in a system that makes life possible.  There’s a beauty that’s easy to overlook in that sort of balance, whether it’s about the personal economics of balancing recreation, work and rest, balancing critical thinking and creativity and wonder, balancing self-care with nurturing family and friends, and making a contribution to the community, the nation, the world.  There are all kinds of ways we need to balance our lives activities, and both the ability and the results can be beautiful.

Earlier in my life I suppose I regarded beauty more in terms of purity or flawlessness. I might have said something like “beauty is cultivated by refining something ordinary toward its perfect extreme.”  Beauty seemed to be about transcendent aesthetics, something sanded smooth so the asymmetries and scars of this worldly existence are erased; something varnished so as to be rendered impervious to the corrosive effects of time.  In religious terms I might have said beauty is a manifestation the eternal, unchanging and self-sufficient nature of the divine.  And I might have talked about beauty as a virtue to be striven for – not for the sake of indulging one’s vanity – but pursuing a high level of aesthetic contribution; taking pains to create works of art that make the world more beautiful and functional as an homage to the divine presence.  I’d probably have suggested Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or the “Nessun Dorma” aria from “Turandot” as examples, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, the Apollo program.  Each has its own iconic beauty testifying to the best talents and inclinations of human civilization.

For whatever reason, that’s not what that comes immediately to mind for me now when I think of beauty.  Not to dismiss aesthetics, mind you.  I certainly appreciate things and experiences that are attractive to the senses.   As part of Susan’s excellent reflection last week, Joe White talked about his practice of photography as a way of noticing and appreciating beauty.  He has a talent for it.  Now and then when I’m at his and Diane’s home, he’ll show me a new set of still lifes and landscapes he’s photographed and framed on the walls of his office.  They really are beautiful.  One especially nice photograph is of his granddaughter in a ballet pose – I think somewhere on the streets of New York City during a vacation they took not long ago.  It’s in black and white as I recall, and there’s an elegance that just reaches out from the image and touches you.  It’s the portrait of a lovely person doing a graceful thing in a magnificent place – a beautiful moment.

It’s easy to confuse the idea of beauty with something being “pretty” or “attractive.”  They’re not the same.  Obviously, a person can be “pretty” or “handsome” in the sense that they have a pleasant appearance and still be an ugly person.  But the beauty I have in mind this morning is something else.  It’s about the beauty of balance that maintains continuity, balance that allows for diversity.  It’s about fostering cooperation and interdependence.  It’s about sustainability in relationships.  It’s about mental curiosity that entices us to take in new information and experience.  It’s about always striving to enlarge our perspective so that we can relate to and celebrate life with more and more people from more and more cultures.  It’s about exercising self-restraint, setting aside greed and pride and cultivating generosity and humility.  It’s about creating balance in our appetites and our attitudes.  It’s about cooperating wisely, understanding ourselves to be only one small being in the complex, grand natural order of things.

Maybe a good way to describe the balance I’m suggesting as a beautiful way to be in the world is to acknowledge that it’s not all – nor even mostly – about one’s self.  Russ has made this observation when he reflects on performing music during our services.  The point of the performance isn’t to draw attention to the performer, but to the art itself.  We’d benefit from cultivating that kind of perspective in our day to day lives.  The beauty of balance is about conscientiously taking part in something greater than ourselves for the sake of something greater rather than for our own, or at least not merely for our own benefit. Certainly, each of us has a right to pursue happiness, but we also have a responsibility to leave the world in at least as good a condition as we found it.  We have a responsibility to make a contribution if we can, to enjoy life in a way that makes it easier – that makes it possible – for others to enjoy it, too.  The world becomes more beautiful when there’s a balance between what we need and what we take and what we give back.  We’re each only a minuscule part of the picture.  Balance both preserves and enhances beauty in the integrated whole for the well-being of all concerned.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine a photograph of Joe’s granddaughter visiting the same spot in New York City 60 years in the future. She’ll be in her 70’s then, perhaps with children and grandchildren of her own.  She’ll have experienced successes and failures, love and loss, health and illness. Perhaps she’ll still be lean and agile, or she may have some accumulation of physical limitations that prevent her from posing like a ballerina anymore.  Maybe she uses a cane, and her hair has greyed. What wisdom might be gained from experiencing that loss of physical prowess?  However she may have changed over the years, the photograph will nonetheless likely portray a beauty just as compelling as the photograph taken of her in her teens.  If that photograph is ever taken and printed, a viewer with a sensitive eye and compassionate heart might be able to intuit the events of a lifetime – joy and grief, success and failure, love and heartbreak, lines etched by earned wisdom and perhaps some regret, as we all have. The beauty might not be the aesthetic grace of youthful dancer, but that of someone who has learned a different kind of balance in the trials and triumphs of life on earth.  It’s a beauty of which anyone might become possessed as we learn to balance freedom and responsibility, as we learn to balance devotion to our own aspirations with giving time and energy to our families and neighbors, and those less fortunate than we.  It’s the balance that comes from coping with disappointment and grief, and becoming open to new possibilities as life moves forward.  It’s a beauty that comes when we learn to balance our preference for comfort with accepting a certain amount of challenge into our lives.

How would you describe your circumstances when things feel balanced in your life? For that matter, how would you describe circumstances when things are out of balance for you? What are the habits and ideas, the approaches to relationship, and just as importantly what are the invitations and perhaps temptations to which you say “no thank you” that help you maintain some sense of well-being, that cause you to feel confident in and maybe even proud of your place in the world?  Take a moment to consider a thought you might like to share, and we’ll pass the microphone for a few minutes.