Beauty and the Selfie

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“‘I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.’ Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: ‘to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.’” –Marcel Proust from “On Beauty and Being Just” by Elaine Scarry

Observers of beauty desire begotten immortality.

This is a fascinating assertion made by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard. Her definition of beauty is currently lost in translation in pop culture, which is why reviewing the points made, including those on replication and contractual agreements, primes the pump for a revitalized conversation on this well-worn topic.

Why does a man stare at a beautiful woman? According to Scarry, he stares because of his ardent desire to take in the beauty he sees until it becomes immortal, forever imprinted in his mind with all of its original, immutable features. Scarry says this: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them.”

You’ll have to forgive me for writing in essay form today, but it helps communicate her perspective, and I think her perspective is one that’s readily applicable to everyone from Facebook moms to LinkedIN execs.

According to the above quote, when we try to capture beauty, we recognize our mortal limitations, and observers of beauty desire begotten immortality. Once gone, the object of our admiration loses some of its original qualities in the fading recesses of our visual memories. How do we combat this in our quest to immortalize beautiful things? We find tangible ways to copy them. If beauty cannot remain immortalized in visual memory, we strive for the next best thing, to replicate it. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Beauty, upon becoming conscious of its tragic mortality, demands replication.

What’s the favored cultural choice for replication? The selfie. This self snapshot is a personalized way to copy our favorite moments, in freeze frame (recognizing their transience), with the hope that others will see and appreciate the aesthetic value. There’s an added benefit that others get to enjoy those moments with us. The selfie is a fun and practical way to mark events when others aren’t around to play the role of photographer, but as an example of beauty it falls short.

In selfies, the observed and observer are one and the same. The subject that is emanating beauty must attempt to copy itself. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but it deceptively supports the cultural ethos that tarnishes beauty’s reputation. This ethos is based upon a one-dimensional view of beauty that is superficial and self-conscious. Let me explain. In photography, the photographer plays the role of narrator, editing with the frame, choosing just the right light, and electing the exact moment to snap, the one that will best capture the edges of the human spirit. With the selfie the defined narrator is also the protagonist in the story. Therefore, the narrator loses essential perspective.

The outcome is this. What we end up capturing is not a self-forgetful photo that replicates beauty, but a contrived and self-conscious interpretation of what we think others want to see. In our self-consciousness we end up masking the attributes that would enhance others’ enjoyment of the aesthetic, we lose the three-dimensional replication. In this sense, the selfie is flat and one-dimensional. It captures us from the physical angles we believe enhance beauty–the eyes and cheekbones and lips, and these traits can be very appealing–but in our preoccupation with being photographer and subject, simultaneously, we lose our ability to unconsciously express a soulful beauty. The contrived nature of the photo whittles away some of the genuine expressiveness that would enhance the emanating internal beauty.

The exception to the selfie rule is when there’s more than one person in a selfie, at which point you may see less self-consciousness from those who aren’t playing the role of narrator. This advances the argument that beauty is best captured by an observer who is other-than the object of beauty itself.

Have you ever seen the candor in a captured expression that enriches the picture because of its self-forgetfulness? For example, a surprised or wide-eyed look, an unabashed and wide grin? These are all vestiges of the internal beauty rising to the surface at just the right moment of replication. Often, this effect is due to the interaction between the photographer and subject, an interaction that advances the storyline. This robust and non-superficial snap of beauty is best captured when the subject is acutely unaware of what he or she is emanating.

When we replicate beauty through photography, the interaction between photographer and subject can enhance the emergence of beauty in ways that allow it to be photogenically captured. This interaction hints at the communal nature of aesthetic emergence.

If beauty demands a separate observer (narrator) to interpret and replicate it, then beauty cannot be self-interpreted or solitary. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception. In its etymology, ‘welcome’ means that one comes with the well-wishes or consent of the person or thing already standing on that ground. It is as though the welcoming thing has entered into, and consented to, your being in its midst. Your arrival seems contractual, not just something you want, but something the world you are now joining wants.”

The moral of the story? If we apply Scarry’s definition, then beauty is best interpreted, replicated, and celebrated not in the solitude of the selfie, but in engaged and receptive community.

I truly hope that you who are camera shy will reconsider allowing yourself to play the singular role of subject. I hope you will take the risk of being photographed at varied angles and with unfiltered expressions knowing that beauty may emerge in unexpected ways, and interpreted differently than you would interpret it yourself. Can you dare to allow your beauty to be interpreted by other narrators? Can you dare to believe your own attractive qualities, when replicated, may contribute to the well-being of your community?

Communal observers of beauty desire begotten immortality, because true beauty points to that which is life-giving.

Write What You Know

 

–Write what you know—

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It’s probably the most common advice handed down to the novice writer, often with the cold austerity of a principal handing off a diploma.  It’s a symbolic statement and a rite of passage.

It’s communicated with a nod that suggests: “You seem like you might someday know something, so when you get to that point, write it.  In the meantime—just fumble.”

 

My question.

 

–What if you don’t know anything and never will?—

 

It’s a dewy, wide-eyed look that accompanies this question.  It’s the look of a novice, scared to death.

This is a good question.  It’s one that occurred to me twenty years ago when I first received the advice to write what I know.  It still fits.

I don’t know anything.  Sure, there are things I understand, some things I have a decent grasp of, but I don’t know anything, not really.  At least not the way advice-givers mean.

To write what you know implies expertise.  And to be an expert implies arrival.  Those who are experts have reached a destination.  The problem is that if you’ve reached your destination, you’re no longer moving.  Arrival is static.

To be in process is dynamic.  To be in process implies perpetual motion.  There are no trappings of finality to entangle us there.

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I remember times in my life when I was an expert.  The arrogance of that belief is astounding, and it came with all the immovable stubbornness that accompanies static living.  Because I believed myself to be an expert, there was no room for community; there was no room for growth.

What did I miss?  Perspective.  Alternative views were lost on me.  Views that were robust and expansive.  Views that had flesh and bones, not just thoughts and words.

I thought I was an expert on grief, which is absurd.  Anybody who has experienced grief knows that you can’t even begin to understand grief until you feel like your body has melted so far into the wood panels of your floor that you’ll have to be scraped up, bit by bit.   And at that point the industrious hand of another–one that scrapes you off the floor–is invaluable and it’s the only option.  And even then, you don’t know grief.  You’ve just begun to learn.  I’ve only begun to learn.

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Nowadays, for so many reasons, I’d rather be dynamic than static.  I’d rather be a novice than an expert.  I’d rather be dewy-eyed and eager to experience the world with curiosity, hunger, awe, and ever-so-many questions.

So, in the unlikely event that I’m asked, here’s my advice to anyone, like me, who wants to fumble at writing.

Write what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Write what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Write what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

And if you don’t care about or want to write, then learn anyway.  Learn from what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Learn from what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Learn from what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

Maybe then expertise will be usurped by a different and, dare I say, better goal.  Maybe then what you know will be replaced by what you desire.

 

 

“If I just…”

I’m often surprised by how brilliantly The Onion delivers the one-two punch with humor to soften defenses and reality as the immediate and unwelcome follow up.

I read this post the other day and thought it was hysterical and simultaneously unnerving because the satirized message rings true.  (Article)

In summary, the press release announces that Bank of America’s newest credit card reward scredit cardystem operates on the existential fulfillment that comes from each purchase: the more you spend, the better you feel.

Without belaboring the fact that truth often underlies humor, the article hits on an important phenomena ubiquitous to the human experience.

It comes in the form of the if/then internal persuasion.  “If I just do this, then I’ll be happy/fulfilled/content.”  Specific examples?  “If I just get that job, then I’ll be happy.”  “If I just lose ten pounds, then I’ll be content.”  “If I just get that girl to like me, then I’ll feel fulfilled.”

It’s so seductive because of its subtle and pervasive grip on our thoughts.  We’re typically unaware of how much this phenomena is impacting our daily decision-making process.  If I’m honest, I get swept up in it far more quickly than I’d like.

Why get so hung up?  Avoidance.  Focusing on the next big thing that will herald in happiness keeps us from doing the tough but important work required to change. It also links our potential happiness with external sources, which means we don’t have to take the road less travelled.

It’s far easier for me to anticipate the external experience that’s just around the bend, ripe with possibility, than to consider being honest with myself about what I need to change.

The problem is the “If I just” phenomena, while it may contain initial promise, leaves us depressed upon attaining the dream job, anticipated relationship, financial security, etc. and realizing we’re unfulfilled.  OR we continuously strive towards unattainable goals, wasting precious time and energy on the elusive dream.

Embracing the internal work has far more promise than chasing the dream.

What’s your current “If I just…” statement?  What’s the real path to change that you’re avoiding?

We can opt for the reward card system, but there’s that nagging, little, internal voice that reminds us: if reward cards bought existential fulfillment, the rich among us would be a lot happier.

Halley’s Cup

Let me tell you about this beautiful confluence of events that occurred a few weeks ago.  It was my own Halley’s Comet that burst into my morning routine with shameless complexity in a plain mug.

This rare beauty was a 2013 Kenyan single origin Ndaroini Peaberry in a Chemex pour over.  For those of you who don’t speak coffee, it takes a Ph.D. in Chemistry, hours of caffeine-enhanced demonstrations, and a propensity to tease apart details that defy all reason, to get the big picture.  I have to settle for a mediocre education that accommodates my limited brain plasticity.  It’s only my passion for coffee that motivates my persistent (and feeble) attempts to educate myself, seeing how I became a counselor strategically to avoid science….and math.

My effort at a succinct summary of the intertwining variables would most certainly fail so bear with me.  The confluent artistry is worth an elongated explanation.  First, let’s talk about the intersection of a variety of rare events that make this particular brew so special, beginning with the origin story.

Kenyan coffee is a mild Arabica known for bold flavor, full body, and aromatic properties grown in nutrient-dense, volcanic soil.  Production varies widely, dependent on a range of factors, and the common scarcity rouses the continued interest of ardent coffee lovers across the world.  Single origin refers to flavor profile purity based on the micro lot or distinct supplier it was generated through and that farm’s unique roasting method.  To many coffee connoisseurs, this is the gold standard of purity.  I won’t bore you with the history of single origin production, evolving definitions, and arguments over whether micro lot really is the best.

Now, to the Peaberry.   The normal production of coffee involves harvesting a coffee cherry (not an actual cherry), which is the fruit produced from a coffee bush.  Normally, the coffee cherry has two seeds that grow uniformly, nestled in the same shell.  On the rare occasion that one of the seeds falls off, the other grows into one, full bean called a Peaberry.  Some coffee lovers believe this abnormality leads to a fuller flavor profile and a more even roast.   The 2013 Kenyan Ndaroini Peaberry happens to be an exceptional crop.  This isn’t always the case.  As with grapes, coffee fruit fall victim to the whims of various ecological factors.

And for the Chemex?  It utilizes a burr grinder with medium grains sized to ensure complex flavors are evenly released into the cup, as the water, literally, pours over the paper-filtered, coarse grounds into a glass beaker, which incubates quality aromatic liquid.  All of these tedious details allow for uniform brightness, flavor coherence, and a full profile to shine through without the astringency or bitter tannins. For an impressive, educational video on the Chemex, click here.  The Chemex tells the coffee’s story purely and simply, without muddying the waters (if you’ll allow me the bad pun).

My first taste of this coffee could only be described as a journey into Halley’s cup.  There was the exceptional dark fruit flavor accented by a citrusy, smooth finish.  It evolved with the transparency of each sip, hitting the palate one note at a time, followed by the velvety texture of the grounds, best narrated by the melodic quality of the pour over with its discerning clarity.  Can you tell I kinda liked it?

I happened upon this brew with none of the fanfare and all of the dense self-absorption that would typically ensure my missing the rarity of the event.  Had the coffee not shouted its story from the rooftop of my palate, I would have overlooked this convergence.

It wasn’t until after tasting it that I researched the brew and it validated what I suspected from that first sip.  This coffee is a true gem, brimming with thousands of harmonious details.

This season, are your eyes open to the possibility of rare moments?  We’re all likely to miss them in the midst of the mundane, our own busyness, and our self-absorption.  Those moments may be lingering in the recesses of your chipped, coffee mug; the bottom of your thread-bare, strung-up stocking; or the back of your tinged, Christmas bulletin.  To follow up from last week’s post, I’m grateful for the mundane because when I look closely and curiously enough, it intermingles with the sublime the way robust grounds and transparent aromas intermingle in a plain, ceramic mug.

10 Tips For Curious Listening

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

–Albert Einstein

Now, I asked way too many questions as a child–questions that drove my parents crazy and my siblings crazier. At one point, I was actually banned from talking during movies because I was so relentless with my questions. I had a deep passion and thirst for knowledge, and was undaunted in my quest to find it. But my brain was not maturely developed, and simply asking questions isn’t a sign of a resilient curiosity. We have to know how to ask the right questions, backed by the right listening skills.

Let me be clear. I have a long way to go in developing mindful curiosity. I stumble through asking the wrong questions all the time. But after sitting in a therapy office for thousands of hours, hearing and asking a multitude of questions, I have a few thoughts on the subject. So here’s a short list of ways to develop a mature curiosity.

  1. Know your agenda. Then, set aside your agenda and listen.
  2. Consider your own predisposed perceptions and how they are coloring the questions you’re asking.
  3. Don’t just ask about the content of what the person is saying, ask also about the process.
  4. Slow down your response time to what you’re hearing. Take a deep breath and take a moment to process the whole landscape.
  5. Ask less questions, not more. Filter through and figure out what you really want to know, rather than asking five iterations of a similar question, as you try to refine what you’re asking.
  6. Ask sensory (what they see, hear, feel) questions more than logic (who, what, when) questions.
  7. Consider the whole picture, not just the immediate piece of the puzzle you’re encountering.
  8. Look for patterns.
  9. Once you’ve found patterns, look for a departure from the patterns and be curious about those.
  10. After listening,consider your agenda again and what you hope to gain from your interaction.

After you’ve implemented these tips, take some time to consider the conversation and be curious about what happened. Did the conversation take on a different shape and texture than anticipated? Did you learn anything you didn’t know before? Did your relationship with this person deepen in light of the questions you asked?

If you try this approach, I’d love to hear feedback. Let me know what you learn about yourself and about the other. Mindful curiosity has the ability to deepen relationships. I hope you find valued connection from your curious interactions with others.

Resourceful Anxiety

I’m often impressed when I watch friends, colleagues, or clients, come up against deadlines and effortlessly push their way through all of the last minute details with clarity, ease, and accuracy.  I can see the energy and excitement surging as they put the finishing touches on a paper, meet a work deadline, or compile a presentation, spurred on by the threat of the looming deadline.

My brain doesn’t work quite the same way; I’m not motivated by fast-approaching deadlines and I don’t like to come in “under the wire”.  I’m a planner and enjoy the opportunity to entertain a well-crafted, thoughtful response versus coming up with something on the fly. (I’m very impressed by those who can craft immediate, thoughtful responses.)  But when I’m forced to face a deadline change, and there’s no time for calculated reactions, something remarkable and curious happens.

There’s a thin place between comfort and panic, a place where we are pushed outside of our comfort zones, and face fear, with little time to allow it to escalate to the point of panic.  Without that opportunity to process perceived dangers, fears of exposure or vulnerability, and without the option of intellectualizing a plan to protect ourselves from any dangers, we are left to face something deeply intuitive, energized by a healthy fear, and exposed by the inability to control that space.

That thin place is where I reside when I’m in my office.  With the dynamic and evolving process of counseling, there is no way to plan or intellectualize myself out of the curve balls that come.  As that anxiety and excitement surge, I’m left to wrestle my way through an intuitive road map, significantly less comfortable than my intellectual road map, but much more authentic.  This is a resource that I didn’t tap into very well until I faced this unnerving experience day after day in counseling.

For those of you who struggle with anxiety, consider times when the heightened fear led to an emerging resource.  What did that anxiety accomplish for you?  What did you tap into when your usual resources weren’t an option?  How did that emerging character trait influence your sense of self?  What experiences are you avoiding for fear of staying in that thin place?   I’d love to hear your comments, questions, or thoughts about your own resourceful anxiety.

The thin place between comfort and panic is a difficult place to stay.  It’s not easy to navigate that emotional spectrum while under pressure, without tipping into panic.  If you’d like to learn more about how to stay in that thin place, that’s a valuable part of the counseling process.   As someone who manages that tension daily, I’d love to dialogue about that.  What I love about my job is seeing the remarkable and curious resources that emerge from others as they bravely enter the thin places of life.  I’m humbled to see brilliance and vibrancy as a client or friend manages the tension and experiences their untapped resources.  I’d invite you to consider this possibility in your own life.  It’s a beautiful thing.