Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

The Art of Transcendence Over the Years, Part II

The presence of beauty

Posted Sep 24, 2014

(Part II of a 5-part series on Transcendence)

Imagine a music-lover sitting in the concert hall while the most noble measures of his favorite symphony resound in his ears. He feels that shiver of emotion which we experience in the presence of the purest beauty. Suppose now that at such a moment we should ask this person whether his life has meaning. He would have to reply that it had been worth while living if only to experience this ecstatic moment.         

            - Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 43


            Experiencing “the purest beauty” can be a transporting experience, taking us to another, lovelier, place even if all we’re doing is sitting in a park. Our colleague, Kate, was particularly inspired by the story of a man she once met, who’d been imprisoned by the Nazis, and held in a tiny cell. He was cold, dirty, and terrified. The only ray of hope in his life came in the form of a tiny window at the top of his cell. All he could see, most of the time, was a sliver of sky. But every now and then, a bird would fly by, and, when he caught even the tiniest glimpse of it, he would suddenly be filled with hope. He found that bird—or the shadow he glimpsed—to be a thing of sublime beauty. It reminded him that somewhere, the world was beautiful, and that freedom still existed, if only for that bird. Seeing it fueled his dream that he would one day be just as free. The ugly world of his cell became a little less ugly, and a place where hope could still bloom. One day, he was freed, and was able to tell others his story of how a fleeting view of a bird had inspired him and kept his hope alive.

            Dr. Frankl, another Nazi victim, who survived Auschwitz, poignantly describes moments when he and his fellow inmates watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains of Salzburg, while they were doing back-breaking labor in a rock quarry, always under the threat of being sent to the death camp section rather than the work detail.  But the men found great solace in the fact that whatever their individual fates, the beauty of nature, of which they were a part, would continue. They further seemed to find comfort in the very idea that their continued ability to appreciate moments of beauty transcended their dehumanized situation.  Frankl credited such moments with the survival of his spirit, without which, he believed he would surely have perished in the camps (though he does not dismiss the element of luck).

            In her research on the partners of young men dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Susan Folkman found that such moments of beauty were incredibly important in helping the healthy caregivers cope with watching their partners’ slow deterioration and death. In the midst of the pain, watching a beautiful sunset together, or admiring a particularly beautiful flower, could bring them together in a shared special moment that transcended their heartbreaking situation. These moments made them feel a part of a greater, more beautiful world than the grim corner of it they experienced on a daily basis. Alongside many of their painful experiences, they were also able to appreciate these positive experiences, which helped revive their spirits.  Often, the grieving surviving partners later looked back on these times with an almost reverent recall of their beauty.

            Beauty and art can have powerful effects even in everyday life. Musical flash mobs, like this one from 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo, literally stop people in their tracks, and bring them together into a whole. Without a room or a stage, artist and audience appreciate the beauty of the moment together.

            Beauty can be had in smaller, more personal ways, too. Late psychoanalyst Hedda Bolgar loved to tend to the many flowers in her yard, throughout her life into her 100’s. “I have a very strong feeling of connection with everything that’s alive,” she said, including, “animals, plants, trees, people.” (The Beauty of Aging, documentary film) Benjamin Schechter, a physician in his sixties, similarly feels that his gardening transports him beyond the present moment, as does listening to Dvorak, Beethoven, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Torme.

            For Jimmie, it is sunrise, rather than sunset, which moves her. In the old days on the farm, the experience of hearing the chirping of the awakening birds and the cock-a-doodle-do of the roosters meant a new day was beginning. Though there aren’t too many roosters around her home in New York, she still feels like a part of nature when she hears the mourning doves cooing through her open window on summer mornings.

            Beauty can come through nature, through art, music, or piece of writing. A good book often transports us from our immediate contexts into the worlds we’re reading about. Or an inspirational book can help us transcend difficult moments in our lives. Vintage Reader Eddie Weaver, an 88 year old retired chemist, feels it when he reads poetry.

            It isn’t only reading that can transport us, but the act of writing can do that, too. Sometimes, we use writing specifically to transcend difficult moments. Journaling has been found to help cancer survivors cope with their illness. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, for example, hosts a popular writing program known as Visible Ink. In one exercise, group members were asked to write a 6-word memoir about the program. One woman wrote:

Bodies are fragile,

But words soar.

Next week: Part III: The Transcendent Nature of Love

This excerpt is adapted from Mindy Greenstein's (age 51) and Jimmie Holland's (age 86) new book about the positive aspects of aging from midlife through older age: Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, published by Oxford University Press.