The Life Changing Difference Between Seeing Beauty and Seeing Beautifully

“Dad.” Pause. “Daddy.” Shorter pause. “Dad!” Almost imperceptible pause. “Daaaadddddyyyyy!”

My eyes remain locked on my computer screen.

In other words, I first respond to my youngest son, Quinn, the way most of us respond to most of life—with distraction. Life is asking us to look at it, but our eyes remain locked on our screens, our minds remain locked on the past or the future, and our hearts remain locked on our nagging obsessions—food and drink, shopping and media, gossip and gripe.

Eventually, though, Quinn surpasses a decibel threshold that gets my attention. I finally lock my eyes on him.

“Dad,” he says, a little breathlessly, “come see the bathroom.”


Photo Credit: Bigstock (lovleah)

I immediately picture an overflowing toilet or toothpaste smeared on a mirror or a trashcan torn asunder by the dog. I sigh heavily and ask with trepidation, “What’s wrong? Is it a mess?”

My second response to Quinn is dread. When life finally gets a little of our attention, we tend to be reluctant to look at it. After all, in the daily news, everything seems to be falling apart, so everything everywhere must be falling apart, right? We pay attention to the problems, and then we come to expect them. We start dreading life instead of looking at it.

But Quinn responds, “No, Dad, it’s not a mess. It’s beautiful.”

We walk into the bathroom. The toilet isn’t overflowing, but there is trash on the floor and the cap has been left off a leaking tube of toothpaste. I see nothing particularly remarkable, let alone beautiful. Quinn steps back. Crosses his arms. Smiles. And says, “The light, Daddy, look at the light.”

Slowly, I begin to see what he’s seeing. The bathroom is subtly illuminated by slanting early morning summer sunlight. I’m no longer distracted or dreading, and I can see what I would have missed only moments before: the bathroom is glowing.

It’s luminous.

Beauty, it turns out, isn’t in the eye of the beholder; beauty is in the eye of the watchful beholder. Unless we are present, even beauty becomes invisible. But if we watch this life attentively, which is to say beautifully, we might just experience the beauty that has been there all along:

the ordinary rustle of breeze in the trees,

the rhythmic dripping of water from a tap in the other room,

the hum of a mower in the distance,

a little girl munching her way methodically through an apple,

an elderly couple with fingers entwined,

the scent of tomatoes on the vine after a rain,

the kiss of cool breeze on warm skin,

autumn sunlight on an upturned face.

Of course, sometimes, no matter how carefully we look, there is no beauty to be seen. Sometimes, life is less like morning sunlight and more like morning fog…

A week after the sunlit bathroom, I awake just after sunup to discover both Quinn and his little sister, Caitlin, missing. Beds empty. The back door ajar. I look outside and, though the sun has risen, the morning is dark—a dense fog enshrouds the house. I panic. But then, through the fog, two laughing children emerge, walking toward me.

“What are you two doing?” I ask.

To which Caitlin responds, “Quinn woke me up. He told me we could touch the clouds. And we did. It was beautiful, Daddy.”

Sometimes, the clouds roll in—pain and mess and chaos and loss and grief and disorder and disease—and it’s impossible to find any beauty in them. They’re dark. Even ugly. But that’s okay. They aren’t meant to be beautiful. The beauty comes in the way we see them. To see that we can touch them. Attend to them. Reach out. Hold the pain and be ensconced by it, but not destroyed by it.

To see that we don’t have to run from the clouds in our life is to see beautifully.

Another week passes, and now we’re sitting in a restaurant waiting for our food. The kids chatter and I’m thinking about Quinn’s sunlight and fog, when a family is seated at a table right behind him. The father sits down facing me.

The entire left side of his face is covered in a birthmark.

It’s dark purple, and it runs from the crown of his head to below his cheek. I try not to stare, as this tremendous ache in the middle of my chest begins to grow. I imagine his childhood. I imagine the other kids looking at him, pointing, teasing. I imagine the clouds this man has endured. But then I see the people surrounding him.

His family.

They’re an ordinary family. But they’re smiling and laughing. They seem like they love each other. And slowly, I begin to see them beautifully—I see that this man walked into his clouds and then walked out of them laughing, into the sunlight.

Quinn invites us. This man invites us. All of life is inviting us. To turn away from our distractions. To let go of our dread. To be attentive.

And to see beautifully.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

44 thoughts on “The Life Changing Difference Between Seeing Beauty and Seeing Beautifully

  1. Keep reminding us Dr. Kelly.
    Let’s hold our clouds and contemplate n their beauty and purpose.

  2. Thank you and as always, I got JUST what I needed! Here’s to holding it all, simultaneously, without judgement, rolling out the welcome mat 🙂 thank you

  3. As Ram Das says, Be Here Now. Thanks for the reminder to come back to the present moment!

  4. My daughter always used to chastise me for seeing what WASN’T done after she cleaned her room rather than all she had accomplished. I learned to look at the accomplishment rather than the much smaller mess that still existed. There will always be some sort of mess still lingering, And we will never see the good if we keep focusing on the bad. Thanks for your words. Your Quinn sounds like quite the guy.

  5. Thank you for sharing this simple but often forgotten truth. Starting each day with joy, wonder and enthusiasm helps us to paint the canvas of life beautifully. I love that at times it takes a child’s perspective to help us see life for what it should be!

  6. I have been living through a lot of fog lately and I have sat on my legs bemoaning my life and all that I found wrong. The funny thing is that after reading this is that I have been blaming myself, and I deserve all of that blame. To make differences you have to see things differently. I see the sunlight, I now see the glow. Its allover. it permeates all. We have to stop watching all other nonsense and pay CLOSE attention. Thank you Dr. Flanagan

  7. I almost deleted this post because my inbox is soooo full. But something tugged at me and I opened it and read it. I’m so glad I did. I do, often, look at the beauty all around me, and yes, sometimes people think I’m crazy. But in a chaotic world, I am just as capable as the next person, to only look at the gloom. I truly appreciated this ray of “sunshine and hope.” Thank you.

  8. The dichotomies of living, of life and the challenge and wonder of seeing these moments of beauty. That has been my working goal this summer to be present, and to be gentle on myself as I try and try again. Thanks again for the wonderful reflection …. what a great way to start my day.

    • Like I said on Facebook, Doreen, I’m so glad this met you where you are this summer! And you describing it as a season of intention gives me the idea of having a specific intention for each season, rather than an entire year-long resolution. Hmmm…

  9. I so look forward to Wednesday because of your post but more I’m looking for serendipitous moment when what you have shared meets with the need of another I may have just spoken to and I get to share your page and know that the light is on its way to them again . Thank you

  10. Here’s what’s beautiful. Your writing in my inbox, a piece that is so stunningly gorgeous, it gives me goosebumps. Thank you for this piece, and all the previous ones that I never commented on and told you how much they touched me.

  11. This reminds me of a comment made by a wonderful friend I visited last week. At a young age, her husband has had to move into long term care due to advanced, early onset Parkinson’s . As we sat on her patio, she said, “My glass is half-full, but I have learned that it is half-full with really good things.” This struck me, and your post today is another reminder, that we need to be watching for beauty, even through fog, or we will miss the good the world has to offer us. Thank you for another wonderful post,

  12. I just returned from a trip to an extremely impoverished community in the Dominican Republic. Your post sums up what I learn there each time I go. Beauty is ever-present, we just need to take the time to see it… feel it. The people of this community with sporadic water & electricity, with unpredictable weather, with hunger and sickness and none of the amenities I have every day: know beauty. They see it and feel it in the love and laughter and simplicity that surrounds them. They come through the clouds of hunger and sickness and lack; with an inner knowing that beauty and love still remain, you just have to look a little deeper to find it! Great Post!

  13. Life is beautiful indeed…often messy. Never linear. Abstract random sometimes. Thanks for a greater reminder, Dr. Flanagan! 😃

  14. Thank you so much for reminding us to take the time to see the beauty around us. What better way than through a child’s eyes. This was beautiful and so important to remind us to step out of our box. I love all your postings!!

  15. One morning I was walking my dog. There were clouds all around. All of a sudden the clouds parted just a little and the sun shone down on a beautiful red rose. The rose had one dew drop on it. It was sort of like the clouds parted and I could “see.” It was beautiful!

    Thanks for sharing your story and reminding me.

  16. Go Quinn and Caitlin! Children are the most amazing, evolved, generous, wise and wonderful beings walking the Earth! We need to get it for once and for all, they are the Teachers, we better listen and learn! Thanks for sharing.

    • I am picturing a school system where children are allowed time to teach their teacher and fellow classmates. These moments develop children profoundly.

      Great observation.

  17. Thank you Kelly.

    I relate this to the young people looking for love and marriage partners. Your message is saying:

    It’s not whether the person being looked at is beautiful/handsome, but rather, is the person being looked at beautifully/handsomely?

    I take away the need to be attentive and present in order for beauty to behold its value.

    Great work Dr. Kelly.

  18. I LOVE this post! I choked up at the list of beauty in the ordinary…..I see it! God used beauty to woo my heart these last four years. When destruction and despair and devastation tried to take over my world…it wasn’t truth or goodness that could pierce my heart….it was the beauty of slanting sunshine on a summer’s day…..the full moon that hung in the evening sky…..the sound of my daughter’s laughing together…..a little bird perched on the edge of the picnic table at lunch……or the simple raw beauty found in someone’s face. Seeing beautifully allows us to see from God’s perspective and that makes all the difference in the world! (

  19. I teach A Course In Miracles, it helps us to see things differently. Your stories were perfect demonstrations of how miracles work. The truth was always there, it is the lense that needs a little adjusting. I find when I look for the light in any given situation, it is almost impossible for me to be in fear. Good stuff, Thanks.

  20. Hi Dr. Flanagan, thanks for this beautiful post…it made me tear up, and I can’t even point my finger to what exactly touched me so much. I’ve been loving your posts for months, but just haven’t commented yet…I know you’re anxious (or were anxious, anyway) about your new email format, so wanted to take this opportunity to finally comment – thank you for these beautiful words, and so many past ones as well! keep it up, you’re doing important work here 🙂

  21. “The beauty comes in the way we see them.” This applies to anything!
    Earlier this afternoon – before I finally got to reading this entry – my husband I were sitting on our cottage deck overlooking the smallish lake. But we were looking up at the sky as the wind was blowing, noting the Ontario (Canada) puffy clouds moving generally from west to east. But since we were in no hurry we had the time to note that there were 2 visible air current layers with the lower one moving more from the south and the upper a bit from the north. As we watched it could be seen that the layers must not be a fixed height because sometimes all the clouds moved in the same direction! Such a wonder this must have been to early humans who ascribed this action to spirits in the sky – why not? It’s definitely a wondrous sight. This was an aspect of cloud watching I’d not really noticed before, not taking the time to just lean back in an Adirondack chair and enjoy the sight. I look forward to doing this type cloud watching again, adding it to my frequent viewing
    fascination of the the lake water in various weather & activity

    Thanks, Kelly, for an opportunity to relive the experience and share.

  22. This post reminded me of the beauty I found on the oncology floor of Texas Children’s Hospital. Most all the children in outpatient therapy take treatment in one large room. The beauty I saw in nurses taking care of patients pales in comparison to the beauty of children showing parents what bravery looks like. Fearless little girls in princess dresses and bald heads laughing and playing games while dragging around an IV pole dripping poison into their veins. Little boys snuggled up with their mom or dad watching Disney movies on a portable dvd player. As incredible as it sounds, it was rare to hear any of them cry. Tired, haggard, worried parents whose world stopped while they took time to just BE with their kids. I would never wish cancer on anyone, but I am thankful for all the time I’ve been able to just BE with my son and the beautiful people I witnessed doing the same.
    Thank you for the post, Dr. Flanagan.

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