Beauty Will Save the World

It’s possible that I already have a blog with this same title, some years back when I was more actively artistic. It’s a line from Fyodor Dostoevsky that has captivated me for years. Back in college when I studied English with a creative writing concentration or after college when I worked with Art House Dallas, retreated to Laity Lodge, and kinda-sorta started drafting a book.

Then I started divinity school…and became busy.

Then I started social work school…and became clinical.

When you’re a student with a paper due tomorrow, you’re not usually going to write a poem, right? You’re going to write the darn paper. When you’re a health or mental health professional with clients to assess, diagnose, and treat, you’re probably not going to paint them a picture — unless it’s a genogram, ecomap, or other clinically significant diagram! It seems as though there’s almost always more pressing things.

“People are in crisis; there’s no time to bother with beauty!” I imagine someone (e.g. myself on a stressed-out day) insisting.

But that’s just it. People are in crisis, therefore we must “bother” with beauty.

As a social worker and sometimes-chaplain, my clients so often think that their bodies are ugly, their families hopeless, their city streets bleak, the news on their televisions terrifying. I refuse to deny someone their feelings of ugliness, hopelessness, bleakness, terror. But I want to also offer an alternative. To see some divine beauty in our human bodies, to remember the grandchild’s fingerpainting hanging on the fridge or the mural or birdsong or car-stereo-song serenading city street.

Over the summer, while I was chaplain-ing in a psychiatric hospital, I marveled at the extent to which the chaplains and (some) clinical staff would use formal or informal elements of expressive arts therapies to support patients’ healing. Patients prone to hallucinations, delusions, flashbacks, or suicidal or homicidal ideation — all quite shameful and difficult to verbalize — could express themselves, soothe and ground themselves in painting, drawing, singing, dancing, or writing regardless of the “caliber” of the art produced.

Just the other day, I got to witness a panel on “Theology & the Arts in Times of Turmoil: A Conversation on Suffering, Art, & God,” sponsored by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts featuring author-historian Kate Bowler, poet-theologian Christian Wiman, and artist-minister Lanecia Rouse Tinsley. Each spoke of their experiences of grief and loss, whether receiving a cancer diagnosis or giving birth to a stillborn child. They spoke of turning to creative writing and painting in the midst and in the aftermath of their grief and loss.

How does beauty save the world?

The artists on that panel refused to say exactly how this works. Simply that it does. Beholding beauty can keep the hopeless hoping, can keep the weary going. Creativity gives us glimpses of something other than — better than — pain.

And that? That can save the world.

What if we don’t have time for beauty? (Or feel like we don’t have time for it?) Ask yourself just briefly at the end of the day, “What did I encounter today that was beautiful?” Listen to music or a creatively-inclined podcast on a commute to work. Imagine ways that the tasks you do (whether for work, as hobbies, or otherwise) are or could be considered creative. <– These are things I’m trying to integrate more into my day-to-day life. Feel free to join me. Let’s save the world.

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