Two things are often more beautiful than reality: the looking forward to something, and the memory of it. One thing is more poignant than joy: nostalgia, in all of its forms.
Imagine this situation: you are walking through a park. It’s spring. Countless trees are blossoming; the grass is so green it hurts your eyes. There is a breeze, but it’s light enough to carry only soft scents with no accompanying shiver. The sky is adamantly, disconcertingly blue. You feel both very light and too heavy for your environs. You are filled with an odd joy that is at once wonder and pain, and beneath it, an understanding that this moment will one day in the near future become more than the sum of its parts: you will look back on this park and remember it with a stab of joy and – especially – belonging which you had not attained while walking through it.
Because walking through this beauty, you know that in fact you are not quite part of it. To others, catching a glimpse of your smile as you look around, it might seem so, but you know better. You are forever isolated slightly from the beauty around you by your humanness, by the thoughts of rent and body and food and human slights and time and lists filling your mind. You cannot let go at will, not entirely, because letting go would mean losing all sense of self, and self-awareness is the human condition, a condition at once wonderful and limiting.
This awareness is what enables you to see the breathtaking glory of your environment. Think about it: the birds flitting about are not aware of the fact that they are beautiful. They are digging for worms and carrying on territorial wars and preening in search of mates and building nests. They do not stop and think: ‘I am creating beauty.’ Neither do the squirrels. Neither does the grass, or even the blossoms, or the gnarly branches on that isolated oak tree standing in woebegone wisdom, though to look at it one would think that it could surely not be unaware of its own majesty.
Now imagine that you walk past a couple sitting on a park bench. They are completely caught up in each other’s eyes, loosely holding hands, laughing at something. You can see in the way they sit, in the way their voices intertwine, in the way one of them quickly leans forward for a kiss, that they are barely aware of their surroundings. Perhaps the spring in its splendour contributes to their joy, but they hardly know it. Certainly they do not notice you noticing them.
Or imagine you walk past a little boy digging in the dirt. He has hair standing on end to the one side, tongue sticking out in concentration, hands already grubby and face drawn into an absorbed frown. You look at his scuffed legs and his dirty pants-seat and at the way he is entirely caught up in the moment, unaware of the picture he is creating.
What do you feel? Chances are, you emotions are mixed. You feel appreciation. You feel joy for their sake. You also feel an unnamed emotion, which, for lack of a better word, we will simply call ‘feeling touched’. And then, admittedly, there are slightly less pleasant emotions. You want to be part of this beautiful tableau – one might even call it jealousy. You think back to your childhood and wonder why you were so eager to grow up. You think back to someone you love or loved and wish they were here, and you wish love were always as simple and uncomplicated as that couple makes it seem. For a moment, you think that perhaps it could indeed be this simple. You feel nostalgic for hordes of unnamed experiences, both in the past and in the hoped-for future. If you’re like me, you walk away daydreaming about all the wonderful things you still plan on doing, adding “sitting on a park bench with someone I love” to the list. Like a friend of mine once told the girl he liked: “You make me miss something I’ve never had before.”
We are like Dickensian children standing barefoot in the snow, peeking into other people’s houses where they have a large Christmas tree put up, lights strung from it, sitting around eating oranges and Christmas cake and laughing. We envy them and we feel the cold, suddenly, much more sharply because it is being compared to the scene in front of us. Yet that detracts nothing from the beauty we are keenly aware of experiencing.
And yet we have been given a gift, walking through that park, which those birds and that couple and that boy did not know at that very moment. We were the ones who saw unselfconscious beauty. They felt contentment. They felt happiness. But only afterward – while rushing to work, while in the midst of an argument or at night feeling lonely, or all grown-up in twenty years’ time – will they look back and feel what we felt when we looked at them. Only then will they appreciate the beauty they created whilst completely unaware of doing so.
Looking at other people’s happiness – others’ beauty – can be difficult. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. We are filled with conflicting emotions when we see others happy, as when we listen to beautiful music and are left feeling both wondrously romantic and oddly lonely; like when we read great books and are filled with equal amounts of wonder and the desire to immediately emulate this author by writing copious poems (which we read afterwards and immediately erase in embarrassment).
This is what beauty does (and seeing happiness is seeing beauty): it creates within us a river threatening to gush from its banks, a need to create and to cause beauty as well, a longing to somehow become part of the beauty we see. When we see something which moves us, we want to recreate it. We long to be inside it, instead of outside it. And so we are at odds with ourselves, because we know that this longing in itself is the source of beauty, the driving force behind it, but we cannot be satisfied with it alone – the very longing would disappear were we to be satisfied with it. Desire is the driving force behind creativity. Longing and frustration are the birthplace of fulfilment. They co-exist in a constant give and take, a swinging back and forth between wanting and having.
And so it seems we cannot have both our cake and eat it. But we can take turns eating it and pondering on it in awed appreciation, whether before or after the actual eating. And there is balance in that; there is an odd kind of fairness to it. Because we also know, whether we want to embrace this knowledge or not, that joy is at its best when placed against contrasts. We know that gratitude comes from the knowledge that this moment cannot carry on forever. In Andrew Solomon’s heartrendingly familiar words: “I tend to find the ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys, because I did not expect those joys to be ordinary to me.”
The best we can do is to try to practice awareness: when in the moment of joy, still being gratefully aware of its sublimeness. And in the same manner we could practise letting go of our self-consciousness when standing outside the edges of happiness, allowing no thoughts of ourselves to penetrate the will to participate fully in what we see.
And when we fail at this – which we will –, when we are once again struck by our desires and our dissatisfaction and our own not-having; or when we live through a beautiful moment only to catch ourselves wondering, later, why we did not appreciate it fully, we can let it be. We can use the impetus of longing to create and, in time, to appreciate. And we can allow enjoyment to be uncomplicated. And perhaps we can learn to accept our humanness, this condition which leaves us always either achingly aware outside of a small circle of beauty, or achingly unaware inside of it, or – usually – both.