Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Beauty

Yesterday I got to witness and take part in a strange phenomenon.  The London Olympics closed on Sunday night, and on Monday it seemed that the nation stumbled about in a daze of mourning its loss.

Why strange?  Because, despite the participation of thousands of Games Makers and hundreds of thousands of spectators who travelled to the arenas, despite the millions of hours invested in preparing the sites, the overwhelming majority of the population contributed no more than sitting in front of the television or listening along on the radio.

What right, then, did we have to mourn?

I think we do have a right to mourn.  Indeed, I think it reveals our humanity.  I would suggest that our mourning is not merely self-indulgent – who will entertain me now? – but that we have been moved by (fleeting glimpses of) beauty and by the subsequent removal (loss) of beauty.  Not simply the particular beauty of finely-honed young bodies – a beauty our own culture places a high premium on – but also the beauty of the smiles on the faces of those who achieved their dream (contrast Tom Daley’s joy at winning bronze with the disappointment of others who wanted gold), and the beauty of spectacular venues (the velodrome, the transformation of Greenwich Park) and backdrops and joyful celebrations.

I am reminded of a story told about a man called Jonah, who mourned the loss of a vine God had provided to give him shelter, and subsequently took away again.  What was it that caused Jonah’s despair and resignation?  Surely it wasn’t the loss of shade, for he had already provided shade for himself by making an effective shelter.  In providing shelter where there was already shelter, God’s action would appear to be extravagant and perhaps even redundant.  And beautiful.  Not just a shelter, but a vine, that elicited a psychologically positive response.

God asked him, do you have any right to be angry? and Jonah replied, I do.  God, interestingly, does not inform Jonah that he is wrong, that he has no right to be angry.  In fact, he affirms Jonah’s response: his emotional investment in something both short-lived and towards which Jonah had contributed nothing.  And then he takes Jonah a step further: God sees beauty in a multitude of people who have mastered nothing, who cannot tell right from wrong, who are overlooked, on a par with cattle...and invites Jonah to see as he sees, and to channel his emotional response in the ways of grace and compassion – giving what is not earned, being moved to action by the plight of others – in ways marked by anger that is under control and love that knows no bounds at all.

These Olympic Games will inspire a new generation of Olympic athletes.  More, they will inspire a new generation of coaches who will invest in the potential of others.  A new generation of designers who will extend the frontiers of human creativity in ways that reflect the Author of Creative Life.  But in the talk of legacy, perhaps the greatest legacy will be if these Games inspire prophets to live in harmony with those whose culture and values and actions in the world are alien to us and ours; and inspire people to invest in the multitude of children who will otherwise never have another opportunity.

It begins when we see beauty in a particular moment, and choose to be people who recognise that the whole world is beautiful; who choose to affirm the beauty in others rather than confirm the ugliness that contends for every heart, including our own.

It is right and proper that we should feel at a loss in the post-Olympic shadow.  The choice before us is to turn in on ourselves, or to turn out to others.

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