Seeing the Sun

Back when I was in high school, I remember being at someone’s house, playing volleyball in the yard (or attempting to play volleyball; I have since given up), and the sun was setting. It was a beautiful sunset. Not that I can remember it specifically or anything, but it must have been beautiful since I said to a girl next to me, “Look at that sunset!” She turned and looked and shrugged and said, “So what?”

In that moment, I swore to never ever be that girl.

I mean, it’s one thing to not notice a sunset. If you’re concentrating on something else, gorgeous things can fly by without ever registering. It happens. That’s why we tell each other, “Look at that!” None of us is going to catch everything. But to see the sunset and not care? I mean, okay, it’s a sunset. We get one every day. Some of them prettier than others, some invisible if the clouds are thick, and we miss a lot of them by virtue of being inside or somewhere without a good western horizon. But they are pretty. Some of ’em are downright stunning. There’s gorgeous ways the clouds can be layered, angles that the sun can hit, colors across the whole spectrum, vivid and glorious and fantastic. No two are alike. It’s our daily lightshow, courtesy of weather, landscape, and season.

I’ve seen other sun-related phenomena. There’s sun dogs, sun pillars, crepuscular rays, and one of these days I’m gonna catch sight of a circumzenithal arc. (Apparently, we tend to miss them ’cause they’re straight overhead.) The concept of seeing something like this and passing it off as “no big deal” seems wrong to me. Yes, they’re common, yes, it’s just the sky doing its thing, but here’s this bit of breathtaking beauty: how can a person not care?

Today I wonder what else may have been going on in that girl’s head.

‘Cause I am a person who, in a normal state, notices beauty. I notice the sharpness of leaves against the blue sky. I notice the rich variations in color in a piece of velvet. I love that day in fall, the first day that the wind comes out of the north, and there’s that taste of frost, that bite, even though it’s warm out. But for a few days recently I had stopped seeing that.

I was taking a walk. I take a lot of walks. It was one of those ludicrously gorgeous days that Nebraskan Septembers are prone to, and I walked beneath a massive old ash tree, and I looked up. The leaves were stark against the blue sky, yellow-green where they were in the sun and kelly-green where they were in shadow, bright as stained glass. And I thought about how I loved seeing that, except that I didn’t feel the usual thrill, that all I wanted to do was keep walking, as if I had something more important to do. Which I didn’t.

That was one of several things that occurred that day that woke me up to the need to rest, to talk to God, to let my heart out, to figure out what was wrong.

The thing is, beauty isn’t automatic. It’s not something you’re bound to see. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Not just because we see different things as beautiful, or measure beauty differently, but because we are capable of not seeing it altogether. In which case, it’s good to ask why.

In a materialist’s world, this doesn’t matter, because there’s no standard for beauty. The word has no foundation. If everything is atoms and forces and chance, beauty is an accident, some illogical response that got passed down because when things that are good for you are beautiful or desirable, you’re more likely to seek things that are good for you. Which makes sense, I suppose, though it doesn’t explain sunsets. I can’t think of an evolutionary reason why colors in the sky should make me that happy.

As a Christian, I’ve got other options. It’s true that beautiful things are often good for us. We can spot good food by its beauty: disease makes an apple both less edible and uglier. A well-kept machine is beautiful to watch or listen to, and a well-cared-for house is beautiful to live in. Toss out what the media says about the subject, and there’s a pretty clear correllation between health and physical beauty. Even better, beauty blossoms when a person is kind, loving, truthful, patient, gracious, or any of the other things God values. Sunsets, however, are proof to me that God loves beauty for its own sake, and creates it wherever he likes.

So how could I not see it? I who love sunsets and gaze at them and buy calendars of them and stick them on my computer for wallpaper? There’s that line in The Horse and His Boy, a phrase out of Calormene culture: “the sun appeared dark in my eyes.” Aravis used it when telling her story about running away from an arranged marriage. I understand what she meant now. Why did the sun appear dark in my eyes?

Later it hit me: That’s the question.

Beauty isn’t automatic. It’s a gift. It’s a blessing. In many ways, it’s not so much a judgement as an instinct. It might sound weird to try to get back negative instincts, like worry or fright, when they go missing. Worry and fright are useful when they point us to what’s worrying us or frightening us. We can ignore them for awhile, or ignore the thing that’s causing them, but it’s just as likely that we’ve got to tackle the thing in question. They’re signposts, to something that needs doing or to a fault in our own heads. We can choose not to worry, and we should choose to hand our worry over to God, but when we can’t worry, we’ve got to start wondering about our psychological health.

When I can’t see beauty, something’s wrong that’s a lot more important than instinct.

I found out what it was, eventually. I’ve got these emotional walls I’ve been trying to take down, and out of worry and anxiety and nervousness and busyness, they’d come back up again. I’d say they’re like dandelions, except I like dandelions, and believe that would be an insult to taraxacum officionale to compare them to the numbing fortress that lurked in my head for so long. Something needed to change. I’d got trapped and was spinning in circles. I was feeling and not talking, not letting it get out. No wonder I couldn’t see beauty. No wonder the sun appeared dark.

Instinct and emotion are not an end in themselves. We can’t devote our lives to happiness, to contentment, to security, or to beauty without ending up horribly unsatisfied. They’re gifts. They’re wonderful. But they are, in fact, aureoles bright as the sun that circle something far more worthy. When they vanish, it’s good to ask why. Something’s in the way, and nevermind seeing the sunset, I need to see the sun.

It’s gorgeous out again today. The sky is vivid blue, and some of the trees are turning colors. They’re some kind of maple, whichever one it is that does the whole orange-to-red this-tree-is-on-fire thing. There’s one in my neighborhood and it gave me a thrill when I drove past it. The thing blocking my vision was gone, and beauty was ringing it as glory.

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7 comments to Seeing the Sun

  • JD

    I’ve awoken in the coast redwoods south of San Francisco more than once to see crepuscular rays (ugly name for something so lovely) streaming through the misty forest of enormous wooden pillars with their green canopy high overhead, casting the entire wood as some titanic, endless natural cathedral. It’s experiences like that where you really see the divine in nature.

  • Mark

    I literally almost fell out of my figurative chair when I read the paragraph about dandelions and emotional walls. I agree with you. I love feeling. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but I think we would be in way more trouble without the ability to feel and express and recognize beauty. Well put!

  • Kat

    In a materialist’s world, this doesn’t matter, because there’s no standard for beauty. The word has no foundation. If everything is atoms and forces and chance, beauty is an accident, some illogical response that got passed down because when things that are good for you are beautiful or desirable, you’re more likely to seek things that are good for you. Which makes sense, I suppose, though it doesn’t explain sunsets. I can’t think of an evolutionary reason why colors in the sky should make me that happy.

    As an atheist, beauty affects me too. Having been both christian and atheist in my life, I can honestly say that I don’t think the world is any less beautiful because I refuse to think that an invisible man in the sky spoke it all into existence. On the contrary, many of my fellow non-believers assert that finding out how all this works and delving deeper into the knowledge of things increases our sense of wonder and beauty.

    Maybe there’s no “standard for beauty.” There can’t be. It’s an abstract concept. There’s no standard for kindness, or love, or tact. Maybe it is atoms and forces and chance. I don’t really understand how that makes anything any less beautiful.

    • Andrea

      I wasn’t trying to say that an atheist (or non-religious person, or person of any faith) isn’t affected by beauty. That’s obviously not true!

      Knowing how something works increases wonder and beauty for me, too. Probably the hallmark of a geek — maybe its source, even? I hope you don’t mind if I flip your point and say that just because I believe a guy in the sky created the universe doesn’t mean that I find a deeper knowledge and understanding of how it all works any less beautiful.

      But you’re right about “standard”: rereading that, it’s the wrong word. I should have said something like “foundation”, “source”, or maybe “purpose”. Beauty is (or should be) part of everyone’s life. The point I was trying to make was how happy I am to belong to a faith that says that things like beauty and pleasure are significant: not for practical reasons, but for their own sake.

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