Month: October 2013

Eye of the beholder?

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There exist in our culture various opinions on “beauty.” Unfortunately, repulsive and superficial extremes have led to dangerous promotion of well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided acceptance of unhealthy lifestyles.

Generation after generation of humanity has attempted to offer up the epitome of beauty by highlighting specific individuals or attributes. Though such discussions and/or assertions encompass both male and female physique, the most common arguments revolve around the definition of beauty with regards to women. Sadly such assertions by so many  has resulted in the shortening of lives too many to count due to depression, self-loathing, unhealthy habits, and outright feelings of rejection by the whole of humanity. The topic is not an easy one to discuss, and is certainly a painful one for all involved. Even so, the consequences of not discussing this topic are too great for too many others offer false assertions that have harmed too many.

Since the definition of “beauty” in various cultures is different, and the definition itself changes over time even within any particular culture, can we truly say that there is even a universal standard for beauty? Or, is the adage true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

The implications of such a discussion will reach far more than just a superficial discussion on sexual attraction (unfortunately, this is where most discussions are grounded) but rather on the very health and well-being of humanity itself.

So, where shall we begin on this discussion? Well, it is often a good idea to begin at the beginning; at the genesis of the human race, in none other than the book of Genesis.

God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Like it or not, believe it or not, humanity was fashioned in the Image of God; the author of Beauty. By Beauty par excellence. Without getting lost in a long description of what exactly beauty is, where it originates, etc. we shall simply say that being made in the image of Beauty itself, we are all, intrinsically ordered towards beauty. That beauty is beyond a simple physical reality. When Christina Aguilera sang “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.” She was spot on in her assertion. However, I fear that her words neglect the fullness of what those words should mean to each and every one of us.

Let us start with Christina’s song and place that true statement within the context of something Pope Benedict XVI said at the Mass of his receiving the Fisherman’s Ring:

“And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”

We are beautiful, no matter what they say because we are each a thought of the excellence of Beauty (God); we are willed by Beauty (God). Each of us, are intrinsically beautiful, each of us is beautiful by our very existence. Nothing can take away from that. The capacity for us to love, and forgive, and commune with one another is what makes us, each and every one of us, beautiful. That capacity is the result of the Author of Beauty making us in the image of Beauty.

So, this intrinsic beauty, does it mean that physical beauty, physical reality is inconsequential to beauty? By no means. What it does do is put physical beauty in context with a greater understanding of beauty; and the Beauty.

We were each created out of love, for love. We were created within a communion of persons.

The human body, except for anomalies such as genetic disorders, physical disabilities, etc. was created to be like all other humans; we all stem from one basic genetic code (with variations, of course). The human heart still exists in my body for the purpose that it does in yours, it pumps blood. My eyes exist to see, as do all eyes. Fingers, toes, feet, lungs, pancreases, and on, and on, and on; all in existence with specific functions. When the entirety of the human body is functioning properly, as it should, no disease, no injury, no hypertension, no hypoglycemia, no seizures; when that happens we have perfect health. The body is as it was intended to be. There is beauty in striving for excellence in a thing. The closer to excellence that a thing gets, the closer to the Author of Creation that thing gets; and the closer to Beauty. This means that one’s physical beauty is not necessarily synonymous with one’s physical attractiveness. Each and every person is unique and therefore, each and every person has their own physical structure. Some women have bony hips, others have curves. A man may be short or tall. What the discussion ought to revolve around is not necessarily all of the specific of what features are most attractive; but whether or not a person is healthy. Is their body approaching excellence or falling away from it? Do you have high blood pressure? Is your weight preventing you from becoming the best person you can? Does it slow you down so as not be able to enjoy life to the fullest? Are you so underweight that you’re anemic? Do you exercise so much that you are actually doing damage to your body, causing premature deterioration of joints, ligaments, and muscles? Our human form cannot last forever. Skin loses elasticity with age. Hormones change and cause the body’s metabolism to slow. The immune system weakens with age. However, our actions can promote greater health or harm our health. When our body is healthy, truly healthy, that which it was created to be, it approaches excellence of form, it approaches beauty. The healthier we are, the more beautiful our physical body will be. Again, this may appear in different forms for different people.

There are many songs, movies, campaigns, public opinions that promote ideologies on beauty that are not actually promoting beauty of the body. We have rap, rock, and country artists denigrating women, over-sexualizing the female form. We have people aggrandizing obesity “big is beautiful” or just as problematic, reducing the whole discussion of beauty to “attractiveness” like this website promotes. We have entire groups dedicated to promoting anorexia and bulimia (read the high fashion industry here). None of these gets us to beauty, in fact, they detract from beauty.

Already having established that each of us is beautiful by our very existence and moving to the discussion of physical beauty being the approach (but not necessarily fulfillment of) excellence of health we can gain a greater, fuller understanding of beauty.

If you want to discover both interior and physical beauty, look at pictures of Dorothy Day in her later years. See the struggle of Pope Blessed John Paul II in prayer. See the smile of a child following the earthquakes in Haiti. When we reduce our understanding of beauty solely to a sexual attraction we are no longer talking about beauty. When we begin the discussion of beauty with “big is beautiful” or “thin is in” and any number of other notions that are really just talking about sexual attraction, we have set our footing on shaky ground; the foundation of our understanding, and the resulting actions that we take individually and as a society, will be set upon shifting sands; for, sexual attraction changes with time, as do all fads but beauty is constant, universal, eternal.


It’s just entertainment

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The dangers of “it’s just entertainment.”

I recently participated in a discussion regarding age appropriateness of certain children’s movies based on content. One theme that some persons kept bringing up was that “it’s just entertainment” and that if a parent teaches their children correctly, they don’t need to worry about the content of the cartoon as long as it is viewed solely as entertainment. This response is sad and misguided because it does not take into consideration the influence that “entertainment” can have on us, especially children.

Studies have shown (go do a journal search) that television, movies, video games, and various types of entertainment can, and do, influence the way we think and act. A very simple anecdote would be “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book that helped influence public opinion to push for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Entertainment molds our vision of the world, most times without our awareness. This is especially the case when our real-life experience of others, particularly those different from us,  is limited.

The evidence is overwhelming that when people repeatedly witness images and scenarios that reinforce stereotypes of persons or groups of people, they are influenced by those images, whether they realize it or not. Allowing a child to watch a cartoon that promotes a stereotype does actually teach that child to think in terms of the stereotype. The irrational part of the brain can, and does, take over in real life. The research regarding the use of the term “illegal” with regards to immigrants who reside in our nation without proper documentation can help us understand this as well. Study after study shows that using the term “illegal” to refer to persons leads others to view immigrants as “less-than” human. It has a dehumanizing effect. Many people who use the term “illegal” do not themselves wish others ill, do not themselves consciously think of immigrants as subhuman, but the results are clear regardless of intent; immigrants are treated as “less than” by those who use the term or repeatedly hear the term in reference to persons.

It goes beyond stereotypes, though. It also affects our understanding of basic universal principles like: love, truth, justice, forgiveness, happiness, and on, and on. I spent a great deal of time when I was a campus minister trying to help my students realize that love is an act of the will, it is a choice, it is a sacrifice; it is not a feeling, it is not something that we “fall into” or “can’t help.” Though they were taught these errant notions of love in many different way, one very clear culprit was “entertainment.” Almost every favorite movie of my students that had a “love story” was about an emotional and/or sexual attraction and not truly about love. The things we choose to watch for entertainment does influence us, most often more than we realize.

Taking the argument a bit to the extreme let us consider other forms of “entertainment” that was “just entertainment.” Perhaps some would say the Coliseum was just entertainment, even though it led to the death of many human beings. Are strip clubs simply “entertainment?”  Is a song that encourages the abuse of women just entertainment? How about a movie that encourages attacking minorities? What about a song that promotes the over-sexualization of women?

As parents, part of the responsibility for teaching right from wrong is about choosing entertainment that is virtuous and not vicious. The response “it’s just a cartoon; it’s just for entertainment” is insufficient and is irresponsible; in fact, it’s just a copout. If a cartoon has a storyline that promotes the subservience of women, it is not “just entertainment.” If a cartoon has characters that reinforce stereotypes of minorities, it is not “just entertainment.” If a cartoon contains content that leads a child away from truth it is not “just entertainment.” Movies, songs, cartoons, television shows, books are not simply amoral objects that have no consequences on those who consume them. They are creations by persons containing ideologies, values, and principles in their content which is intended to influence the consumer; the most vulnerable of these consumers are children. Dr. Seuss was very clear in his intent for writing his books, he wanted to influence the way children and adults treated one another. Harriet Beecher Stowe was clear in her intent to influence others with her “entertainment.” But so do “white power” bands (promoting white supremacy). The movie “Birth of a Nation” was just “entertainment” but promoted a subhuman vision of Blacks.

We cannot simply say that things are just “entertainment” as if things meant to entertain do not also have consequences on how persons respect the intrinsic dignity of others, and human dignity in general. We must be more intentional in our approach to entertainment for children; if that means we limit the things children encounter via entertainment, then so be it. This is not to advocate sheltering children from the real world; rather, it means that in order to teach children right from wrong, to help them understand good and evil, to witness such things in the world they live, we should engage in the world around us and help them have a greater understanding from real-life experiences and not via a “children’s” cartoon.  

The Beauty of Mystery

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A recent dialogue I had regarding God and His allowance of evil led someone to accuse me of neglecting “mystery” in my encounter of God and my study of the Church. It caused me to take pause and ask: “Do I really ignore the mystery of faith? Have I become blind to the beauty of mystery?” After some reflection, I do not think so; further, I was led to realize that many who like to accuse others of ignoring the mystery of God (and the many mysteries that we encounter like the Eucharist, the Trinity, and the likes) are themselves guilty of missteps in understanding the true beauty of mystery.

When I was younger, I would often get frustrated with people who would answer my questions that sought for a rational understanding of the Eucharist, the Trinity, the reason for evil, and many other topics by telling me “it is a mystery.” I thought this was a copout. I thought that those who answer me with “mystery” were simply stumped and were attempting to defend an indefensible position with the theological equivalent of “because I said so.” I was obviously errant in such an opinion and I myself was denying the mystery for what it was.

As humans, our nature seeks to understand the world around us. Being creatures with rational minds, this desire to seek leads us to seek rational arguments for everything, including God. We want to quantify and qualify all that God is so that we can pretend to know everything there is to know about him; packaging Him into a nice little box so that we can hold Him entirely in the palm of our hands. There is a pride within us, as humans, that makes us think that we can actually know with our intellect everything there is to know about God, especially His will and the purpose for His actions (or lack of action). Artists, as much as academics alike, try to bring God low by explaining too much, by “representing” too much, by placing him within the realm of certainty. It is possible to assert too much certainty about any particular mystery and God Himself. This is so because the mystery is above our human reason; it is more than the temporal reality in which we live.

The beauty of the mystery is too often thought of in temporal terms; that the beauty emanates from the material/emotional aspects of the mystery, since our intellect is limited in knowing through reason the mystery before us. I think this is the error, once again, of the human person trying to understand what is beyond our capacity. Since we cannot attach intellectual words to the mystery, we attach emotion, feelings, desires, and passion to the mystery. I believe (to use a term used by Pope Francis regarding Franciscan spirituality) this is a saccharine view of mystery; a view that still attempts to understand that which is beyond us; to make the mystery concrete, to make it sweet.

In truth, the beauty of the mystery is the encounter with God; plain and simple. The beauty of the mystery is the act of handing oneself completely over to the Will of God not knowing everything and still offering oneself vulnerable to the Creator. The mystery, appropriately experienced, is an experience of trust and of humility. When we encounter mystery we acknowledge our own limitation in knowing and say to God: “I do not know all there is to know about what this is, but I trust that you do and I offer myself to you in this moment so that I may experience this gift, and enter into relationship with you, for no other purpose than to be in relationship with you, the Creator of the mystery.”

God invites us to experience something that is greater than us, that is more than us, that is beyond us, that cannot be fully understood in our temporal state. Therein lies the beauty. The beauty is that we enter into a relationship of trust, of faith, of love with God in order to experience the mystery that is beyond us, to experience God. The beauty of the mystery is not how it makes us feel. The beauty of the mystery is not the passion that the encounter may or may not enliven within us. The beauty of the mystery is the encounter itself and not its effects. The beauty is that God lowers Himself so that we may be raised.