‘Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.’
- Milan Kundera
We were raised being told that beauty lies in happiness. That beautiful people smile, and that we ourselves become more attractive by smiling. It seems pretty logical, and it does seem to work. It even seems appropriate and preferred more often than not.
Yet, even though heartbreak and melancholy and misery are in the minority when it comes to the idea of beauty, we shouldn’t be blind to it. Especially when it is shared, grief and sadness can seem to have a beauty that outweighs shared victories and accomplishments.
If we think about it, some of the most charming and attractive people we’ve met are not smiling. In fact, they look lost in their thoughts as if they were consumed by their own pain. It’s almost as if we can see the dialogue in their minds playing over a recent loss or impending doom.
Don’t get me wrong. We may smile when asked. We aren’t moping goths. Yet, our smile seems somewhat strained. It is a brief moment of sunlight breaking through a cloudy day.
Smiling people may be attractive and charming. Yet, for some of us, our most intense beauty comes from the tragedy in our lives that we carry in our eyes. These people have somehow become beautiful, not despite their sadness (which could be argued with the lovely Scarlett Johannson), but because of their sadness.
The most obvious example, and quite possible first example of capturing beauty in tragedy was done for the sake of religion. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was no doubt drowning in grief and concern for her son. I mean her son disappeared for years and then only came back home to teach of a revolutionary way of living of which he was later crucified for.
Yet, we see these poignantly somber images of Mary and we can’t help but be mesmerized by their beauty.
You would think seeing such sadness, in a painting or on a sculpture or in real life, would be a bummer. Yet, there is beauty in it. What makes the image and/or the person so beautiful, is how they allow us to see them. They make us feel less alone in the sense that this person obviously understands pain, and therefore, they could perhaps understand our pain.
This person could smile and pretend to be normal, but they don’t. They don’t hide their sorrows. They aren’t ashamed of their pain. Their eyes tell us they have walked through the fire and they aren’t afraid of it.
One could say that part of our deepest drive for wanting love is to be understood.
Life seems to be built with tragedy involved. It is part of the very pillars of existence. So how could we expect somebody to love us, to get us, if they go through life as if it was all so easy and obvious?
We want somebody as confused as us by how bad things happen to good people. We want somebody that gets sad like us at the pain we experience when we live our lives. We want somebody that will be devastated at the thought of abandoned puppies. We want somebody that feels the same as we do in our need to escape from the yucky ‘friendliness’ of everyday life. We want somebody who, like us, understands disaster and anxiety and regret.
Our idea of physical beauty has been focused on the idea of smiling and happiness. There may be some psychological reasoning behind that. Yet, all the smiling billboards and red carpet movie stars cheesing their lives away will never convince me not to appreciate the beauty in tragedy.
We must all wear masks sometimes. (No 2020 pun intended here.) Yet to leave the masks off can be one of the most charming things we can do. To leave the masks off is to acknowledge the heartache that is the human condition. It is to expose a moment of profound candor. A truthfulness that real love and friendship can blossom from.
‘They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna [Karenina] could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.’
- Milan Kundera