I remember the first time I encountered something truly beautiful, how I was instantly changed into a man of resolve and purpose. It happened when I first experienced love at first sight. I was completely unprepared for the experience, unaware of the forcefulness of romance in the human heart. It wasn’t as though the girl herself was the true good or the eternal beauty, but the ideal of a selfless love. Loving selflessly is the culmination of life, and in that moment, I was made aware of how much greater selfless love was than the dead passions of the flesh.
As I saw her, very instantly, I felt a perceptible change come over the world, indescribable, but which awakened me to thoughts and feelings beforehand foreign. In describing her, I can only say that she was somehow violently beautiful. For almost instantaneously the former things were wrenched from my heart and new ideals thrust themselves forward in their place.
Prior to that instant, I had been steeped in the ordinary, the mundane. But now, I felt forced to answer those ancient questions of life that all hearts encounter in rare moments:
Will you be the kind of man who truly strives for great things? Or will you settle for the selfish ambitions of a vain and callused heart?
I felt called out in that moment, that something indefinable was demanding to know what kind of man I was, and what kind of man I ought to be. That same instant I saw her, I felt a sudden contempt for my own small ambitions – that I had been wasting my time wallowing in the mire, when truly great and inexpressible things lay waiting to be found. I felt ashamed for not perceiving beforehand that such things existed, and because of that feeling, I was convinced that I could have but one response: that I ought to be a better man.
In those few moments, I felt a strange contempt for my own happiness. Though I did not know her, my heart convinced me that she was someone truly special and worth fighting for, and that to come to know her would be a manifold and inexpressible treasure. In that moment, I felt a contempt for my own need for meager happiness, and instead, was filled with resolve to become the kind of man that a girl like her could truly need, though it cost me my own search for happiness. I felt that to be a better man was more important than to be happy, and that often, the two are mutually exclusive. As the ancient poet says:
Whoever sees you and doesn’t smile.
Whose jaw doesn’t drop with awe,
Whose qualities fail to increase in a thousand ways,
Can only be the mortar and bricks of a prison.
The effect of it was so striking that I can remember it vividly to this day. I couldn’t believe the strangeness of it, how my whole world could radically alter in an instant, and things I had never before considered could become of paramount importance in a mere moment. As the poet, Sara Teasdale declares:
O Beauty, out of may a cup
You have made me drunk and wild
Ever since I was a child.
There are many who have had similar experiences. I think of Saint Augustine, who wrote of a powerful encounter when he came face to face with himself, and realized that he was a foolish man. This realization struck him as he read the pages of a philosophical book that changed his life. He said:
Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward You, Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom.
Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to him, and with an incredible warmth of heart he yearned to be a better man, after his own fashion. His description, recorded over 1500 years ago, sounds nearly identical to what I described at the beginning of this essay. Suddenly, he found himself with new hopes and new desires. He saw the true good, the beautiful, and instantly, his life was changed. He became a fighter, or in his own words, he was filled with an incredible warmth of heart to become a man of wisdom.
When we perceive the beautiful, we will dare to do the difficult, will despise the mundane pleasures and comforts of life, and will long for the best of things in life. It will be like an explosion of new life, and not just more of the same kind of life, but a new kind of living. The true goal of life is to learn to fight for things worth fighting for.
Many of the philosophers have said similar notions, in their own way. I think of Plato’s great Allegory of the Cave, where a man and his fellows sit chained in a cave all their lives, watching the shadows of real things against the back wall of the cave. One of the men breaks free and wanders out of the cave into the real world. The dazzling light blinds him, and after a few moments, he sees that all his life he has viewed only the shadows of things and not the real things themselves. His life is changed in an instant and he awakens anew.