Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Eye of the Beholder

When I was growing up, there were many times when I heard my parents lamenting the fact that they had lost touch with good friends.

Most of these friends were people they had known when they were all serving as missionaries together in Africa, but each returned to the United States at different times.

As time passed, many of the mailing addresses my parents had for these friends became outdated. Letters and Christmas cards may have been forwarded to new addresses for awhile. Perhaps some found their destinations initially, but eventually they must have stopped reaching their intended recipients and wound up undelivered, collecting dust in the post office.

I have often thought that it is a shame that the internet didn't exist in those days. My parents could have used it to look for lost friends. Once they found those friends, they could have used e–mail to stay in touch.

And they could have used sites like Facebook to reconnect with people. I signed up with Facebook in January, and I have been amazed at how many old friends I have reconnected with in a matter of months.

One is a friend I have probably known since we were about 11 or 12. I don't think we went to the same elementary school, but I am pretty sure we were in middle school together, so we probably met in sixth or seventh grade.

Many of our classmates got married not long after high school graduation. Some of those marriages have proven to have staying power, but many have not.

In my friend's case, love came to her later in life, but it seems that it is of the lasting variety. We were "chatting" on Facebook recently, and she was talking about her relationship with her husband, how it is based on mutual love. My friend has had some serious health problems in recent years, and she mentioned (in what I could only imagine were tones of amazement since the conversation was written and not spoken) that her husband "thinks I am beautiful and sexy even when I know I can't possibly be."

That, it seems to me, is the definition of love — an attraction based not merely on physical desire but on other, more intangible factors.

And, with all due respect to my friend, this isn't about what she thinks of herself. It's about what her husband thinks. If he thinks she is beautiful and sexy, she is. No one else's opinion matters.

It is often expressed this way: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

That quote is frequently attributed to Plato, but, apparently, it is a misquote, a boiled–down version of what was actually a more profound statement:
"Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may."

I have written about the subject of beauty before, but poets and philosophers clearly disagree on what beauty is. It is a topic that has bewildered writers for a long, long time.

Here are some examples:
  • "Beauty is not in the face," wrote Kahlil Gibran. "Beauty is a light in the heart."

  • Although he wrote of very young lovers in "Romeo and Juliet," it seems to me that Shakespeare was on to something more lasting and meaningful than physical attraction when he wrote, "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."

  • Aristotle called beauty "the gift of God."

  • Socrates, perhaps thinking only of physical beauty, called it "a short–lived tyranny" — and, in truth, few people are fortunate enough to retain their good looks as they age. So, possibly, Socrates was right if one thinks of those who learned little when they were young except how to use their looks to get by without having to do much.

  • I've always been fond of what Lord Byron wrote: "She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes."

    Now, that's poetry.
Love and beauty remain enigmas to modern observers. Many people mistake lust for love. People want to possess that for which they lust. And lust is based on the external, not the internal. No wonder so many marriages fail.

This ongoing quest may have been best summarized by Dr. Frasier Crane, who said in an episode of his popular TV series, "We do not choose love. It chooses us." And it chooses on its schedule, not ours.

In my experience, the relationships that have lasted have been the ones in which people describe each other as "soulmates." That is a concept that transcends physical beauty and speaks of something that will endure through the phases of life.

So, while it may not be exactly what Plato said, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.