Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence

I have just returned from vacation on Vancouver Island, on Canada’s Pacific coast. It’s a place of wonder: of majestic cedars reaching to the heavens, of fathomless waters stretching to the horizon, and of mighty mountains that remind one why the High Places have always been considered the dwelling-places of the gods. 

It’s fitting then that surrounded as I have been by all this wonder, this week’s exploration of character strengths is all about the Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. In the original drafts of the VIA classification, it was called “awe,” which I think hits at its intent quite well. According to more recent publications by the  VIA Institute on Character Strengths, this strength is about recognizing, experiencing, and appreciating the beauty around us and the skills and abilities of others. It manifests in three general areas: the awe and wonder experienced in response to physical beauty (such as a piece of art or a beautiful sunset), the admiration of another’s skill or talent, and the inspiration arising from witnessing virtue or moral goodness at work. Niemietz and McGrath summarize this strength as “the ability to see something delightful and moving in situations, environments, or other people, a special something that others may ignore” (The Power of Character Strengths, 223).

In the VIA classification, appreciation of beauty and excellence is grouped under the category of Transcendence. This is a helpful consideration to keep in mind when we think about the benefits of this strength. Transcendence is the word we use to describe anything that takes us out of ourselves, out of our heads, and into the world beyond. Experiences of transcendence make us feel more expansive and more interconnected with the rest of creation. This reminds me of a spiritual mentor of mine who would insist on meeting people experiencing depression for a walk along the beach: There’s nothing quite like the vista of purple mountains floating above the sea to ease the burden of a depressive mind, even if just for a few minutes. 

Other kinds of appreciation of excellence are similar. Just think of the life-changing impact of inspirational movies, books, or historical figures. Seeing a Martin Luther King Jr or Gandhi in action makes me want to become bolder and stronger and more committed to nonviolent resistance. Reading a story of triumph over adversity makes me want to rise above my own challenges. And so on. 

More than most of the other strengths in the VIA classification, the appreciation of beauty and excellence has been particularly important in my own life. I’ve written about two examples before here that are helpful examples of how this strength can be leveraged for growth and healing:

I was in Chicago, alone, for my birthday, on a very grey, windy, wet and miserable May day. It was my last full day in the city and I I decided to head down to Buckingham Fountain, as I hadn’t been to the Loop at all this visit. As I stood before the fountain, in that moment — no matter the weather, and no matter how many times I’d been there before — the immensity, the beauty, and the intentionality of the skyline splayed out before me just blew my mind. And there I was, standing in the rain, gaping at the stunning towers all around me, with tears streaming down my face. I heard myself think like a whisper, I want a life as grand and beautiful as this skyline (A Skyline of the Heart).

And:

As I reflect back on my attempts at re-enchanting my world, it was this magic from paying attention that led the way: The magic of the evening sun dancing on the waters of the Salish Sea, the magic of the dappled sunlight shining through a forest canopy, the magic of a young father’s face lighting up with joy at the sight of his child. Beauty, awe, wonder, joy — the overwhelming sense of gratitude that comes from noticing what is happening around me. This is similar to what I discovered in my year of sacred practices: that the simple act of paying attention to something can transform it into an opportunity for meaning and grace” (Magic).

Within the Biblical tradition, the appreciation of beauty and excellence can best be seen in the Psalms. Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Similarly, Psalm 104, after outlining in gorgeous metaphors God’s creative act, proclaims: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In Wisdom you have made them all!” A sense of wonder at the world around us is further articulated in the book of Job, when God famously answers Job from the whirlwind: 

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

In this tradition, our transcendent wonder at the beauty of the world is understood to be a response to creation’s revelatory power. This sensibility has continued throughout Christian history. Time will not permit me to go into a long litany of this beautiful theology and its influence on the lives of the saints, but I will share just one example. The seventeenth-century monk known as Brother Lawrence learned his life’s major lesson in trusting God’s loving and guiding care from observing the seasonal patterns of trees:

The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favor in his conversion at the age of eighteen. During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul. This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since (The Practice of the Presence of God, Conversation 1).

A lack of this strength can manifest itself as insensitivity and apathy, or an inability to be in the moment. As Niemietz and McGrath note, we can only be awed in the moment; becoming desensitized to the beauty around us is a surefire way of losing the immediacy of now. Worse still is the opposite of this strength, fault-finding or criticism. This is the tendency to see only what’s lacking from a situation instead of what is present. This kind of fault-finding can be closely related to one of the shadow sides of the appreciation of beauty and excellence, a snobbishness that only sees beauty in the best, however one defines that. Because the appreciation of beauty is a trait of transcendence, its shadow or excess can also look a bit like that of spirituality, where if one isn’t careful one can be so caught up in beauty that one loses touch with the world around us. At its worst, it can become a pathological inability to handle the ugliness that is also a natural part of life. 

How might we improve our appreciation of beauty and excellence? Here are some small ways:

  • Take 5 minutes simply to observe what’s around you. If you’re outside, try observing one tree branch, root, flower, or leaf and seeing the fullness of life in it. Or if you’re in you home, look at the lines, shadows, and colour in your surroundings and see the beauty in them.
  • Watch a child learning a new skill over time.
  • Listen to a famous piece of music or look at a famous piece of art and think about what thoughts, emotions, or senses it brings up for you. 
  • Keep a daily log for two weeks noting things that impressed or awed you.
  • Send a note of appreciation to a colleague who has done something impressive.

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