“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.”
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.
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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.