The story of our newlywed wilderness vacation in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota/Canada is well known to the longstanding readers of this article. Attempting to meet our outfitter for a ride home from our week-long wilderness vacation, in the pre-cell-phone days of the early Nineties, Lisa and I could not afford to wait out an ominous storm. Despite pulling on our paddles as hard as we could, battling stout whitecaps and wind, we conducted, “beauty checks” for many hard miles and hours until we met up with our ride home. In this instance, a “beauty check” involved spotting a stunning landscape, or object of interest, and calling it out. In the midst of back-breaking work, the effect of our beauty checks was to take an energy-providing sip-of-grace. To this day, we are convinced that it was our beauty checks that gave us the energy to successfully make our way to our original “put in” spot.
Any good story has layers and dimensions of meaning to it. On one level, the vocabulary of beauty checks, is all about staying positive by intentionally savoring beauty in the midst of adversity. This is the layer of meaning that I am glad to uncover when I am providing workshops for employees, or business leaders. An intentional, almost defiant positivity is the heart and soul of resilience according to all the research I have studied
This philosophy came in handy in that moment of history when we had a toddler, a baby, a doctoral dissertation due for me, and an intern year of residency for my wife. During significant stretches of time, Lisa would rotate through a thirty-six hour shift every fourth night. She would come home from those shifts, flop into bed, wake up the next day, and put in her usual ten hours of work, until four days later, when she would work a thirty-six hour shift. Having cut my workload in half, naptimes for children meant research and writing for me. During this time, it felt like the rain was blowing horizontally into our faces, and lifting white-capped waves in front of us. Recalling our adventure of years earlier, we remembered to do our beauty checks. If Lisa could get home with an ounce of energy, and I could get the kids to bed, we would light a candle, pour out an adult beverage and say, “we’re on a date!” If I could put some food with it, we’d say, “we’re at the most exclusive restaurant in Saint Louis.” Beauty checks enhance resilience.
Lawrence Gonzalez’ book, “Deep Survival” described something similar. Gonzalez interviewed survivors of nature accidents. From those interviews he compiled a common list of factors that contributed to their survival. One of those factors: beauty checks. “From my seat in hell, I could see heaven,” a survivor recounted. Weeks waiting for a rescue boat in a life raft gave him a front row seat to a cosmic light show each night. Doing this nightly beauty check gave him the hope and energy to shiver through a few more hours to morning light and warmth.
Some ominous clouds seem to be forming along our horizon these days raining down a cascade of new vocabulary: “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” “flattening the curve.” The list goes on. In the face of these kinds of winds and waves, I would like to mine that old beauty-check story, that I’ve told countless times, for a deeper layer of meaning than when I present it in secular settings.
Our spiritual tradition’s core tenet is that we live in a God-drenched world that is full of divine affection. As part of that world, each person contains an inestimable dignity. Endowed with an indwelling Spirit of God, and made in God’s image and likeness, each and every person is a work of unrepeatable art.
What flows from this insight is that, at any given moment there is something gracious, something beautiful to appreciate. That means that, at any given moment, we can utilize gratitude as a tool for resilience. Don’t get me wrong. We cannot be grateful for everything (eg. COVID19). But at any given moment, there is something that we can find that is worthy of a beauty check.
In this week’s Sunday Gospel selection, Jesus healed a man of his blindness. This week, can you work to improve your own vision. Keep a daily, even hourly lookout for beauty checks. Perhaps this would be a good time to create a Beauty Check Journal. As you engage in this form of intentional spirituality, I invite you to occasionally turn your gaze inward and savor the beauty that flows through you into the world.