Beauty and Terror

Recently, during a conversation with a retired man, I was reminded of the mix of beauty and terror present in life and how it is possible to embrace both aspects. He shared about his enjoyment of sitting on his patio admiring the beauty of the flowers growing in his yard and the delight of seeing other blooms poking through his fence. The joy and appreciation in his voice were evident until the conversation turned to supporting his wife who is living with stage 4 cancer. I marveled at how he was still able to notice the beauty in the world, despite the terror of his wife's diagnosis and the inevitable decline he will also need to witness.

In some cases, when people are going through painful experiences it is difficult to notice any beauty around them. Their perception of life can be easily coloured by whatever dark cloud is hovering over them, making their landscape look gray and bleak. The presence of whatever terror has befallen them blinds them to any sign of beauty trying to peek through the thick clouds enveloping them. These feelings of pain and sorrow are so overwhelming there is no capacity to notice anything else within one's environment.

In other cases, the opposite can be true as people try to avoid paying any attention to the terror, preferring to push it aside and to focus on something more pleasant. As a therapist, I encounter people everyday who are dealing with their own unique terrors, though they sometimes attempt to ignore those terrors. Trying to focus on anything but the terror is understandable given the brain's propensity to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, emotions cannot be eliminated by ignoring them; they can only be avoided for so long before they return screaming to get noticed.

Finding the ability to allow ourselves to experience both the wonderful and the horrible parts of life can feel difficult because our minds tend to have an easier time of focusing on one side or the other. The Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke offers this wisdom of neither being overwhelmed by the terror, nor trying to ignore it. He encourages his reader to: "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."

It is important to note, Rilke is not suggesting submissiveness in the face of abuse and oppression, or to stand by in situations we have the option to stand up against injustice. Rather, his encouragement is for acceptance of circumstances beyond our control and to allow ourselves to experience the full gamut of emotions life has to offer while continuing to move forward no matter what happens because other feelings will inevitably follow. It was a gift to witness Rilke's philosophy in action via the retired man who was able to admire his beautiful blooms while still being painfully aware of cancer's terror. May we all find the courage to do the same.

Chip Bender, RP(q)
Interfaith Counselling Centre

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