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What is beauty?

West side of the Manhattan Bridge

I don’t have an answer. I’m not even sure there is an exact formula. Like, “A + B – Q = Beauty” or “2/3 red -1/8 cerulean = Beauty.” No. No, I don’t think we can approach this concept from a formulaic perspective. It’s not that type of conversation.

What prompted this curiosity and questioning is a blog post by the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit who invests in social enterprises with a mission to address global strifes. They are extremely admirable and in my opinion, a leading example for building engaging conversations and using creativity and critical-thinking to work on some of the world’s most pressing issues (i.e. poverty, limited access to health care, fractured economies, etc.) The post, brought to my attention by Philanthropiece, engaged me beyond the typical, “Oh, what great things is the Acumen Fund reporting now?” The topic was, “What are you doing when you feel the most beautiful?” After reading their post I paused for moments. Many, many moments. The question caught me off guard because it’s not the typical inquiry resulting in answers like, “Helping others” or “volunteering” or even, “Making art.” I believe the answer runs deeper than overt actions or observable behaviors. The answer to this question should elicit the same level of beauty that the inquiry is trying to exemplify. As Ms. Novogratz explains, she’ll often ask this during a job interview and prospective employees will follow-up with, “What do you mean by beautiful?” I joined those fellow prospectives in this case as my thoughts led me to asking myself: What is beauty?

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It’s difficult to quantify who says beauty is ________. Or that beauty is _________. I don’t think it’s fair to say first world countries are more likely to say X and developing countries Y. But I do think our different cultures, our varying social constraints, and our unparalleled challenges due to circumstances within and far from our control do influence and aid in defining a person’s definition of beauty. I think two people from the same culture can share a similar answer but in the end, what IS beauty is a totally unique and individual experience. Perhaps those are the building blocks that answer the question: beauty is an experience.

Jacqueline Novogratz presents this very question during a visit to a Mumbai slum. She sits among community members (women) and a heavy silence follows her question, “What are you doing when you feel the most beautiful?” Answers emerge that suggest these women have experienced defeat and trying times. But amid the silence and displeasing echoes surfaced stories of integrity and self-expression, of honesty and reflection. The common thread linking all the women’s stories was their ability to speak openly, candidly, and to be themselves: to be free.

As stated in the post, “Freedom is what beauty feels like when it can most express itself.” When we can speak our mind or share our perspectives, when we can de-clutter the cobwebs in our head or remove the weight of undisclosed tragedies; that I believe, is the beginning of what beauty constitutes.

It’s a great question though. What is beauty? Is it how we feel or what we look like? Does what we wear make us feel beautiful and as a result cause us to behave freer and act more liberated to speak the truth and live out ‘beautiful’ experiences? Can we feel beautiful when we are meant to be experiencing despair, or loneliness, or mourning? Or is it only through the action of something we are engaged in? In Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,” he begins to measure beauty in comparison to the sublime as:

“Beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate.”

While his discourse really seems to touch upon more physical and tangible properties, I can’t help but read this and take into consideration that perhaps there is a quality that exceeds beauty, something that can’t be qualified or observed. And again, maybe it’s this freedom that Ms. Novogratz mentions. For how much more beautiful could life or a moment be, if lived by embracing freedom in its entirety?

Dinner calls. Though tonight’s feast will be made by simple touches, the very act of making food for consumption is satisfying, and yes, in certain ways, beautiful. However, will I feel my most beautiful in this culinary task? Who knows, I might. As Ms. Novogratz challenged her prospective employees during the interview, I challenge you to consider what you’re doing, when you feel your most beautiful.

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