“We fight back with beauty.”
That was the brief nugget of wisdom I gleaned from my final reading of God, Improv and the Art of Living. I have a practice for my morning devotional to pick some sort of book that speaks to me, is broken up into short one-page sections, and gives me a different lens at which to look at life. I have spent the last two months making my way through MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s delightful book on living our lives as if we were on the improv stage. I chose it, one, because improv scares the bejesus out of me and, two, because I had this sense that life in the church is probably going to marked by a persistent improvisational nature for years, maybe decades, to come.
It’s been a good read and a good ride for me, these few minutes every morning with MaryAnn. Once again, she spoke directly to my heart earlier this week as she recounted circumstances that seemed too great to overcome or to find any hopeful outcome. In speaking to a friend who was facing a seemingly hopeless situation about how she coped the friend offered this beautiful sage-like wisdom:
“We fight back with beauty.”
She said it to me. She said it anyone who is feeling hopeless about their lives. She said it to an America that wonders if we will ever recover the unified “one nation” that we recite in our pledge. She said it to all those who have to find meaning outside of history and time.
I have noticed this shift in myself over recent years. I know that when I was younger I was able to commit to goals and missions and causes in the belief that if I just worked hard enough, creatively enough and long enough I could almost single-handedly make the world more just, kinder, fairer, more merciful and humble. I don’t know how much of it is aging or our current environment, but I no longer have that same confidence in my abilities. I am just not big enough, strong enough, and influential enough to mold the world into the image that I have in my head and heart (and that I believe is faithful).
It’s not that I have given up. In fact, far from it.
But I have noticed a shift and this beautiful piece of wisdom, “We fight back with beauty,” touches on what is happening for me. I used to think about enjoying life once I had slain all the monsters around me and made just all of the injustices of life. “Work first, enjoyment later,” was my motto. The only problem is that the work just never stopped!
Now I do what I can do with the hours that I have and then I concentrate on creating or enjoying beauty. I play my guitar (not very beautifully, but I try!). I ride my bike over a rugged snow-capped mountain or along an eye-pleasing country road laden with wildflowers. I cook a good meal blending flavors and colors and arranging the elements as artistically as my clunky left brain allows me to do. I watch superhuman athletes throw a ball from thirty feet into a two-foot net. I walk meditatively along the river.
In a word, I fight back at the hopelessness that sometimes overwhelms me with creating and enjoying beauty. I may not be able to eradicate all of the weeds of the world, but I can plant one flower right at my own feet. I may not be able to make our political environment less vitriolic and hateful, but I can fill the space right around me with kindness, with love, and with poetic beauty.
Personally, I wish I had more fight in me. I wish I believed that if I just marched loudly one more time, or preached just the right fire and brimstone sermon, or put all of my hopes in the next I’ll-be-your-savior candidate that my work would finally be done. I would have been successful in creating an as-close-to-the-kingdom-of-God reality as has ever been done. But, dang it, I just don’t believe it. And because I don’t believe it I just can’t muster up the energy to spend the rest of my life fighting with anger with anger, and vitriol with vitriol.
But I haven’t given up. I have just changed my weapon. I have replaced anger with love. I have decided that it is better to spend my energy creating beauty than destroying ugliness. I have decided that the way to the future is not the eradication of evil, but the expansion of goodness.
Maybe it’s a sign of aging. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity. Maybe it’s pure resignation. But whatever it is, I have decided—if I have to fight I will fight back with beauty. It may not change the whole world, but it changes my world.
And that is just going to have to be good enough for now.
Another beautiful message. Thank you.
Thanks for this breadcrumb. The propagation of beauty is a lifesaving goal and I’ll enjoy reading the book. Joan Roane, 1st Presbyterian of Bend
Reminds me of the words listeners to the program I produced, Open Door shared. They sent me their observations on life which I was able to use in the radio program and matched them with music of the day which helped underscore the writer’s words. It was a gracious experience for me and even more meaningful for those who would listen to the program which was aired all over the USA and the world through the Armed Forced radio as well. Many “breadcrumbs” were spread across the world along with good rock n roll music that tied in with the theme. Those scripts and many tapes now are saved offline by others than me. It was a wonderful way for listeners to share their observations about life with a much wider circle of people. Many “breadcrumbs” were shared and consumed over the nearly 20 years Open Door was broadcast. It closed down a number of years ago when the mother station, 62KGW in Portland closed it’s doors and left me with no studio and outlet for the program. Lots of listers “breadcrumbs” of life were heard round the world for which I was most grateful to have been the one to have the means to share them.
This resonates with me, and it is a balance I am trying to find. But is it enough? Is it what we are called to?
Is it enough to simply “change my world”? I ask this to pick a fight. I’m not trying to be antagonistic.
I can surround myself with beauty, but there are still people starving in the Sudan. I can take a hike along the Coastal Trail, but there are still children being kept in cages along our border. I can plant a flower garden, but too many of my black sisters and brothers are wrongly imprisioned and dying at the hands of police. I can paint, or write, or play my guitar, but the sea levels still continue to rise.
Hiding myself in beauty seems to be a luxury of privilege. Don’t get me wrong. We need it. We need beauty. We need art. I can change the world, and it can give us respite. A time to recharge.
When I was at the border a few weeks ago, I saw people there, refugees seeking asylum creating art, colorful paintings, drawings, poetry…
They needed it.
But I also witnessed hundreds of volunteers providing shelter, medical care, free legal assistance, food, clothing, rides to the airport…
They needed that too.
I also saw people protesting, speaking truth to power, lobbying, advocating, raising awareness.
We need it all.
You say that you once believed that you could, almost single handedly change the world. But that you now know that you are not “big enough, strong enoug, influential enough…”. You’re not. None of us are. But together… Together we can. Isn’t that what church is about?
“The people united can never be defeated.” Armed with truth and beauty we confront the evil around us. We humble ourselves, and lift up those around us. We do the hard things, even at tremendous cost to ourselves. Even at risk of loosing our lives.
No we can’t do it ourselves. But with God and each other, we can can’t we?
In the words of Margaret Mead, “doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If we don’t believe that, then what is the purpose of the church?
Thank you for your reply. This is why I write so that people can engage honestly and deeply. My post was a reflection on how I used to put beauty off until I had accomplished defeating the forces of injustice, evil, ignorance, etc. I probably could have emphasized more my line, “It’s not that I have given up. In fact, far from it,” and expanded on that. My point there was that I have learned to do what I can with the 40-60 hours of energy I have every week do change the world and then make sure that I also take time to enjoy the blessings of God.
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” says the First Answer to the Shorter Catechism. I am in a time of life where I am learning to enjoy God just as much as I glorify God.
Yes, Bob, what is the right or best balance? We both are asking that question and I think it is the right question.
Oh, I understood, and didn’t think you had given up. We do what we can where we can, in concert with others doing the same, and hope that it will be enough. And, we surround ourselves with beauty. We have to. It is how we survive.
I love your comment about filling the space around you with love and beauty. I’m going to remember and use it around me. Together we can improve our world. 😊