Recently I have been talking with my medical students about how the recognition of beauty can shape our actions. We routinely behold lovely paintings, people, and vistas, I tell my students. And paintings, people, and vistas might move us. But we don’t always allow them to move us to action.
The Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry, in her book On Beauty and Being Just, argues that beauty can propel us to act ethically. When we see a beautiful sunset, we want to share it, to distribute it. Scarry says that beauty exerts a pressure toward justice or what she calls “ethical equality.”
In the presence of beauty, we undergo a “radical decentering.” We cease to become the most important thing to ourselves. Beautiful objects, Scarry writes, “lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else’s sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before.” We are no longer the center of our own universe. “We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us,” Scarry says.
Beauty changes the way we see, pressing in on our senses, orienting us toward genuine concern for the other.
Why does this matter for medical practitioners? Because medicine is full of ugliness. Festering wounds, disfigured countenances, disarming psychopathology. How do we orient ourselves toward genuine concern for the other when the appearance of the other is so off-putting? Stench, weakness, decay—all provoke a dis-ease among young doctors already battling personal stress, fatigue, and loneliness. Can we persuade them to perceive beauty—and respond ethically—despite these obstacles?
I decided to test the idea on my nine-year-old daughter. For a long time, I had been wanting to visit some elderly friends of mine, but the pandemic had complicated routine visits. My friends are a nonagenarian couple. They do not suffer from provocative ailments, but they are declining. They are both hard of hearing, and one is losing her short-term memory and has trouble walking. My daughter had never met them.
It struck me that elementary school students have very few opportunities to engage the extreme elderly. My daughter hasn’t seen her own grandparents—in their eighties and nineties—in 3 years. They live abroad, and the pandemic thwarted our repeated attempts at visiting. COVID-19 also put an end to regular performances by her music conservatory at a local nursing home. What’s more, the very elderly in our congregation have not resumed their religious service attendance, opting instead to worship virtually.
On the subway ride to my friends’ house, I explained to my daughter what to expect. She might have to speak loudly and repeat herself, I said. She might have to walk slowly or hold doors. She’d have to be patient. I told my daughter that I was teaching my medical students about beauty, and I asked her to look for beauty in my very old friends. I said that even if they don’t appear beautiful as in storybooks, I wanted her to find their beauty. It would be there, I said. But she’d have to look.
We had a wonderful visit. My friends were in far better health and spirits than I had anticipated. It was a delightful reunion. For her part, my daughter behaved impeccably. She articulated loudly and clearly, repeating herself when requested. She jumped up to help without having to be asked.
After leaving their home, we walked into the heat of an early summer’s day, and my daughter turned to me and said, “They were really kind.”
“But did you see their beauty?” I asked.
“That’s what I’m telling you,” my daughter replied, matter of factly. “The beauty is in their kindness. And the way they ask you questions, even if sometimes they forget and repeat themselves. And they’re sometimes funny. They make you feel welcome and cared for, and that’s kind of like beauty.”
One never really knows what to expect from children, but I found it intriguing that my daughter shot straight past appearances to see the deeper splendor of the heart. And her consciousness of that beauty was made manifest in her actions.
When we train ourselves to perceive hidden beauty, we grow in fortitude and compassion. Not only are we strengthened against adversity, we cultivate a sensitivity to the inner life of the other. We grow in decency, and we grow in wisdom.
In a profession that requires a dogged commitment to individual achievement just to graduate medical school, doctors and trainees alike stand to benefit from the radical decentering made possible by attention to beauty.
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