The Beauty of What’s in Front of You
In the Eye of the Beholder
Just this morning I read a short, compelling post by Mark Robertson at The Panamerican, called The Mythic Power of Leaving Home. In it, he considers the trap of sentimentality and I was compelled to comment that coming back to an idealized memory of home would be like recreating Eden. Once we leave that womblike state, there’s no going back, no matter how hard you try. We can’t un-know what we know, what we’ve learned about how the world really works as we grow up and go through life.
The Garden of Eden, that peaceable kingdom of innocence, is our soft-focus toddlerhood where we learn to give things names and everything is nice to us, everything is there for our benefit. Engines of corruption and mayhem are beyond comprehension in this world. We want it so much that it fuels our fantasies about what we want to be when we grow up, what kind of picket-fenced cottage we want to live in, what kind of person we want to marry. When we realize what a mixed bag life seems to be, we hope to get it when we go to Heaven or some such afterlife.
Consider, then, the person who is always looking for Eden. Since it doesn’t exist in real time, it can only be found by looking to the past or to the future. Looking to the past, recollecting the nurtured times, the faultless parents, loyal pets, best friends forever, shiny bicycle, and favorite treehouse, life can take on the aura of magic, like the glow from the candles on a birthday cake. Looking to the future, there are daydreams of perfection, the faultless mate, brilliant children, corner office, landscaped poolside, and tons of money earning outrageous interest.
A little bit of looking to either the past or the future goes a long way. Looking for Eden in the future runs the risk of setting yourself up for disappointment, because at no point does it exist in real time. People aren’t perfect, the world isn’t perfect, no job, no pet, no house, no economic climate is ever completely perfect. The most imperfect thing of all, in fact, would be your own expectations, your definition of Eden.
Looking for Eden in the past is fraught with problems. This is where, as Mark Robertson points out, sentimentality enters the picture. We’ve all seen sentimentality taken to extremes, and are perhaps guilty of it ourselves, hanging on to objects from our past, keeping elaborate scrapbooks of minutiae, feeling homesick when away, feeling homesick at the very prospect of leaving home, becoming maudlin when old songs are played. We can’t let go of even the least bit of our children’s school papers, and we can’t say no to our great-aunt’s teacup collection.
The idealized past becomes tangible, because we can embody it in objects. A toy is not just a toy, it is the toy, the one which our little hands played with in Eden. It tells us that Eden was, indeed, real, and gives us hope that it is still real, somewhere. That hope fuels the search for Eden in the future. Convinced that it might somehow still exist, we keep searching for it by one path or another. All those boxes that hold supplies and equipment for our recent hobbies and ventures are evidence of our attempt to find a new Eden. When we realize it isn’t the right path, the things are set aside or are simply just left there, unused.
There is a weird little emotion, called triste, a wistful sadness, that many have experienced while letting go of recently abandoned passions (for a good example, see Tanja Hoagland’s post at Minimalist Packrat, Joyously Releasing the Dream). Those of us who have done serious decluttering of our possessions have also undergone the mental decluttering that is the natural result of self-examination.
It is this ability to stand back and look at our stuff and ourselves that is the key to finding an Eden, of sorts, in the here in now, to finding beauty in what is right in front of you. Coming to terms with triste is coming to terms with the beauty of your own knowledge, your own power to find meaning in the broken as well as the perfect. What could be more beautiful than to look at things with your eyes open?
Taking off the rose-colored lenses restores the depth of existence, and honors both struggle and achievement, both the past and the future, but most of all things as they are, right now, and in this present, perfect moment, the mix of life and death, of light and shadows, of right and wrong. As one human to another, we plead, “Look at me! Know me! Cherish me as I am!” How can we answer this for one another if we are only looking for denizens of a personal Eden, Platonic Forms, ideal concepts of what each other should be? If we do this, we’ll never get out of our own heads long enough to really know one another, to see what we’ve been searching for, in both the fresh flower and the withered.