“What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about life so far?”
The question was deceptively simple, but I wanted to give a useful answer. A high school student told me his teacher had assigned him to ask this question to 10 random adults — outside his family — and then write about what they said.
There’s so much I could say to that question, because I’ve learned so much. I constantly feel as though I have to throw out at least half of what I’ve learned and start over, because I keep finding flaws in beliefs I used to accept as obvious. Much of what I write here is an attempt to chronicle what I’m learning and discarding as I change. What could I possibly say now to this teen?
“Love and beauty,” I finally said after I thought about it for a long minute.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew this was going to be hard to explain. The teen looked confused. So I tried again.
Different people will give you different priorities as you grow up.
Some will teach you to value family, but as you keep watching, you’ll eventually find that most of them really mean obedience to social norms of their group. They typically want you to obey and they want you to feel obligation to those related to you by birth, regardless of whether those people treat you with love and respect or not.
Some people will teach you to value money and success. They’ll tell you that unless you have a lot of money and resources, nobody will respect you and everybody else will be able to push you around. But you eventually find that all of those people are unhappy. They’re typically terrified of losing and they can’t ever stop trying to prove themselves. (They’ll never have enough success to prove anything.)
Some people will teach you to value God above all, but almost all of these people really value their religion over the experience of the Creator. They’re typically teaching you to value their rules, their beliefs, their social order. God is reduced to a bit player — at best — in their teachings.
Most people will claim to value love, but — there’s always a “but.” They want to be loved. They want to experience real love and belonging, but they want that after they’ve served all their other false gods first.
“Of course I want love,” someone might say, “but I’d have to give up too much. There are too many tradeoffs. I’ll make more money first. I’ll climb higher on the success ladder first. Love will always be waiting for me when I have more time.”
But we have less time than we think.
The love we thought would always be an option moves on and leaves us. We lose the attributes that allow us to attract love when it was freely offered. Worst of all, the ticking clock moves ever faster toward death.
We don’t like to think about this, but on the day we were born, we started on a long path that leads toward death.
Pursuing love and beauty won’t change any of that. We’re going to die. We’re going to lose the health that we take for granted. We’re going to lose the people who we thought we could count on.
But focusing on love and beauty will bring us to the things that really matter.
You’ll find God and purpose and everything else worth living for where love and beauty come together, but you will inevitably make mistakes along the way.
You might not recognize beauty at first. I’ve seen people — and you have, too — who are beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside. That sort of beauty fades and dies as the person inside becomes more obvious. Other kinds of beauty will go unrecognized at first. How many people have you met who didn’t appear attractive but who became more and more beautiful as you got to know the person inside? The rarest kind in a human, of course, is the case of someone who appears beautiful and turns out to have a heart and mind that are even more beautiful. That’s the kind of beauty that will last.
You might not recognize love at first. Some people will make loud professions of love but you’ll eventually realize that what the person wants is control, not love. Those people see you as extensions of themselves — like an arm of their own to move at will. They aren’t interested in your boundaries or your needs — as you understand them. Those people just insist that you owe them your loyalty. This isn’t love. This is a selfish need to control someone else.
When you find love, you will find connection and understanding. If you have experienced emotional dysfunction in your past — especially in your family of origin — this love will seem scary at first. It will seem alien. It will make you feel as though you don’t deserve it. You will find every excuse in the world to reject it.
But if you can find that sort of understanding mutual connection, you’ll find everything you need and you’ll find a reason to live — if you’ll faithfully pursue love and beauty.
That connection will bring safety of the only kind that matters. It will bring security that transcends this life. It will provide you a peek into the love of God and the connection that we all have between us.
I tried to explain all of this to the teen who asked me the question. I probably didn’t do a very good job — and I’m probably not making the point clear enough here. I knew what I wanted to express, but rational words struggled to explain something so abstract.
Then I left the restaurant and saw the beginning of sunset. I parked at the top of a hill and stood alone watching Nature’s majestic artwork unfold in front of me.
I found myself wishing I had that teen with me, because I thought this could explain what I had meant better than my words had.
“Find someone who makes you feel this way,” I would have told him. “Find someone whose heart and mind and eyes rival the beauty of this sky. You will find everything you need in this beauty and in the beauty you find in such a person.”
Anyone who has the eyes to see such beauty and the ears to hear this message of love will understand. To most of the world, though — those fools who pursue everything except this love and beauty — the words will be complete nonsense.
Find selfless mutual love and beauty — and you’ll find God and purpose and everything else which makes life worth living. Nothing else will ever come close.
Note: Click on the picture above — the beautiful sunset I watched alone tonight — for a bigger version. Who or what do you see in it? You’ll find truth there.