Why is there beauty?
Looking out from the rocky cliffs to the foaming ocean below, the angry sea was pounding in dramatic intensity. Waves dressed in white, thrust from winds given birth to thousands of miles away, crashed in magnificent force against the rocks.
Days earlier a relentless sun had sprinkled diamonds by the millions on the ocean surface. The sun’s rays danced, reflecting its brilliance in a revolution of colors. The angry sea, the one that hurtled fury against the rocks below, was gently lapping against the shore then. It was as smooth as woven silk.
A week earlier: Nighttime. My wife and I sat on wooden stairs overlooking a black ocean. The sound of unseen, crashing waves filled the air and stilled existential mind noise. It was a black void before us. Then the moon peaked out from behind bellowing clouds, turning the ocean into iridescent streams of white light.
Why the beauty? Or a better question: Why beauty? Why wasn’t the Earth simply created in dull blacks and grays? Why infuse the crashing surf with awe and splendor? Why is the sun given thousands of colors to inspire us with sunsets? Why the delicate power of red, white and even black roses to enchant?
Why are we not contented with the all too earthy allure of gold? After all, the more you own, the better off you are. To worship the newest aircraft carrier or assault rifle speaks to the elemental savagery in us. The more we can kill and maim, the more we can take from others. It is a simple equation that is easily understood, even as it plunges us to our doom.
But where is the payoff for beauty? Nobody has ever killed in the name of beauty. No one has been waterboarded with beauty as a justification. No car bombs go off because of the dictates of beauty. Why bother with something that cannot be weighed or owned?
My wife and I saw Joshua Bell, the premier violinist in the world. Closing one’s eyes, beauty as musical poetry overwhelmed the soul. Mundane thoughts, nagging self-doubts slid into irrelevance. There was absolutely no scientific reason his music brought one to the edge of tears. Closing my eyes, drifting into the ethereal boundless regions of beauty, my wife’s soul came before me. It was like the brilliant white light as it had played on the moonlit ocean nights before. She is mere mortal but in possession of such a gentle soul as to leave one speechless and in awe.
That is the nature of beauty. It leaves us speechless for there is no reason for its existence. It leaves us in awe with its ability to give transcending pleasures to our mundane existence, to transport us to a realm that is not of this Earth, and yet the very essence of our existence. Perhaps it is the reason we struggle against overwhelming odds, when we know a payoff for our efforts are unlikely.
The beauty of nature, of life makes no sense. It doesn’t work according to positive reinforcement theories, or the Darwinian struggle of the fittest. Beauty pleases us on a plain that is missing rationale. The beauty gene — that elemental particle in physics and chemistry that infuses all — is without reason. But without it life is unknown. Our existence is one with it. A god — a being beyond our comprehension — was kind enough to include the beauty gene, the beauty element for us.
Maybe it is the singular thing that ties us all together. It is the one thing that in the end gives us hope.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.