Beauty and our Moral Compass

I went to see Father Greg Boyle last night. He started Homeboy, a series of businesses that employ LA gang members when they get out of prison. I’ve heard him speak before. He brings tears to my eyes.

He doesn’t preach, he speaks of kinship, and tenderness, and beauty, and the dignity of the gang members he works with. The connective tissue his stories wove through the audience contrasted starkly with the daily barrage of news reports that I allow to assail my attention each morning.

The feeling of contrast between the two experiences, the inclusiveness of Father Boyle and the divisiveness of the news, gave me an insight into what creates beauty and what creates ugliness.

Beauty we experience when we feel a connection to the indivisibility of our existence. Take for example the magnificent blue-green gem of our planet. We see, if we explore its functioning, an interconnected, symbiotic perfection. A perfection far beyond the ability of man’s intellect to construct, and very likely beyond our ability to fully understand. When we feel aligned to that, and appreciate that, and see its unity in function, we experience beauty.

When man steps outside that interconnectedness, which is where most of us are, most of the time, we step in varying degrees into a wilful distance from it and find our attention becomes motivated by non-inclusive qualities like power and greed. The by-product of that labor creates ugliness.

We are now so inundated with small-minded, grubby, profit-motivated thinking and so awash in their social and environmental ugly backwash that it is hard to imagine acting as a society from a connection to that unity—for a common good winning over private gain.

But when I watch the news I feel that unified connective presence, or at least the promise of it, broken for someone’s smaller partisan gain. It is always a short-term gain, with a long-term cost. A grasping separation from the possibility of a seamless coupling with the wisdom surrounding us. That reminds me of a line in Kant: ”Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Kant marvels at our awareness of that moral law, or moral compass, within. He doesn’t suggest, as a philosopher, that it is rare. Rather he implies we all have access to that. And my contention is, acting in accord with that produces beauty. In service and work, such as Father Boyle’s. Or say, in artistic expression. Separate from it and the results are ugly. Perhaps not a conscious awareness of creating ugliness. Perhaps it even feels noble and righteous. But only from a limited viewpoint. Sooner or later we see where it fell short, and we see the ugly byproduct it left behind, that someone else must mend.

Beauty: a pull to wholeness and inclusiveness
Ugly: a carved off divisiveness, a grasping for ownership

That, at any rate, was my insight last night. Of course making broad, sweeping statements opens me to my own blindnesses. So if I’m missing something important, let me know. I’ll let, in the spirit of my post, Mary Oliver have the last word, from her poem, Spring

There is only one question
How to love this world.

2 thoughts on “Beauty and our Moral Compass

  1. My gratitude, Ian. You did for me what Father Greg Boyle did for you. I was questioning my authenticity as an artist after a workshop yesterday. We were examining artists’ statements, and I felt ashamed that what I seek again and again is beauty, connection, transcendence. It seems shallow, callow, if not cliche. Yet it’s there when I meditate: the settling of my mind and seeing of the vast unity and benevolence of things, people. Not that the divisiveness goes away – it loses its hold on us. This melting away of barriers or brave truth of what we are is what matters, and what fuels our good intentions into good deeds.

    • Judith
      I was reading a book by Robert Adams, a photographer, a couple of days ago. He had a lovely quote:”The only thing new in art is the example; the message is, broadly speaking, the same — coherence, form, meaning.” There is something reassuring about that statement in light of what you feel about your artist statement. I think it is possible to make clever statements, but that does not mean they are true. And the same mind set creates a lot of clever art too, but that doesn’t mean it will last. The hard part of giving expression to beauty I feel is to follow your path into wherever it leads and not to illustrate an idea of beauty.
      Good luck!

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