Apart from the pandemic, what has been most disturbing, traumatising, or depressing for you this year? My most troubled moments in 2020 have been when I’ve come up against ugliness. I’ve been deeply disturbed by the ugliness of the conspiracy theories I’ve encountered. I’ve been bruised by the violent opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and to reporting on gender-based violence. And I’ve been viscerally repulsed by the ugliness of Donald Trump’s presidency and the Republican Party’s support of him. Ugliness is destructive, dehumanising, and divisive, and I find myself increasingly driven to resist it in all its forms.
THE UGLY TRUTH
When I speak about ugliness, I’m not referring to what is socially defined as ugly—clashing paint colours on a house, art that depicts uncomfortable themes, or music that doesn’t fit my own personal aesthetic. Ugliness is a spiritual thing. It is a rejection of all that is good, true, and beautiful. It is a determination to define people, situations, and things in the shallowest and least nuanced way possible. And it is the complete lack of insight into the complexity, connectedness, and mystery of the cosmos.
I am reminded of the history of South Africa and the ugliness of forced removals of black people into crowded hostels and overpopulated townships. I imagine how soul-destroying it must be to live with inadequate housing, poor sanitation, water, power, and waste systems, and few resources for growing food, making a living, or beautifying the environment. The ongoing legacy of this ugliness—poverty, unemployment, fragmented families, racism, violence, and addiction—is a witness to its lethal power.
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THE BEAUTIFUL ANTIDOTE TO UGLINESS
And that is why I am so deeply devoted to beauty. Beauty has kept me sane through this pandemic. And beauty has given me the strength to resist this year’s onslaught of ugliness. One of the reasons that I am a complete talent-show junky is that the incredible display of creativity and beauty never ceases to move me to tears and inspire an invincible hope within me.
A few seasons ago on the dance competition show World Of Dance, a young girl named Eva Igo danced her way to second place. She was not the only dancer to stir deep emotions within me, but the intensity of her performances combined with her childlike laughter as the crowd erupted at her finishes, touched something deep in my soul. It wasn’t just beautiful dancing. It was the beauty of the person, the intention, and the joy that multiplied around her. Here’s one example of what I mean:
THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF BEAUTY
Where ugliness destroys, beauty creates. What ugliness divides, beauty unites. And while ugliness dehumanises, beauty dignifies, uplifts, and humanises. A beautiful environment increases mental health. Beauty inspires hope and joy. And beauty can be revolutionary in challenging ugliness in the status quo, as the artists and musicians of Sophiatown did in Apartheid South Africa. Even scientists refer to mathematical work like Einstein’s theories of relativity as beautiful.
There is a transcendent, spiritual quality to beauty that nourishes the human soul. And there is nothing so effective at transforming ugliness as true beauty. But beauty is more than just what is aesthetically pleasing to the senses. When something speaks truth and leads us into a deeper experience of goodness, it is beautiful even if it seems aesthetically ‘ugly.’ People who have lived well and loved deeply can be beautiful even when their physical appearance is unremarkable or scarred in some way.
OVERCOMING THE UGLY
So how can we draw on the power of beauty to confront and transform the ugly in our lives and in our world? Here are a few simple suggestions, but I’d love to hear your ideas too. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Work on expanding your definition of beauty. Seek it out in unexpected places and people, and learn to listen to your heart when it responds to surprising beauty.
Create beauty in your own way and ignore the opinions of others. If it is beautiful for you, embrace it and celebrate it.
Resist the temptation to reduce beauty to the skin deep facsimile that is often sold to us by society. Seek out the deeper beauty of the interesting, mysterious, uncomfortable, challenging, inspiring, complex, and confusing.
When confronted with ugliness, seek out beauty as soon as possible. Allow it to fill and heal you.
Make connecting with beauty a regular spiritual practice. Read poetry, listen to music, walk in nature, share laughter with loved ones, watch movies, play with your pets, make funny faces at babies, tell silly jokes, listen to the stories of the elderly, hold the hand of the dying, celebrate the courage of protesters against injustice or join them.
Let’s transform the ugliness in our world together through a deep commitment to true beauty!
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