Social Issues

for the beauty of the earth

Me and basically anyone who knows me well has a running joke: if it’s the most expensive one in the store, that’s the one I want. It’s hilarious because I gravitate toward those items without knowing it. The most expensive lamp. The most expensive pair of heels. The most expensive necklace. The most expensive hat. At times, it’s uncanny. I can think of only a handful of times where the item I liked the best wasn’t the most expensive, but even then it was usually the second most expensive.

I have no idea where this “talent” came from. I grew up as a military brat so it’s not like I had the chance to develop a taste for the finer things in life. My circumstances are different now than what they were when I was a kid, but I’m not exactly Scrooge McDuck-ing it through a pile of gold coins. We have the ability to save up and make investments in decent furniture and things like that, but it does take time and it can only happen because we’re careful.

But, I look around my home– we’ve finally finished unpacking– and I’m proud of how lovely it is. Yeah it’s Walmart tables and Ikea bookcases, but on the other hand I have a beautifully framed print of John Singer-Sargent’s “Incensing the Veil,” gorgeous curtains, an eclectic collection of antique teacups, knick-knacks from all over the world (thanks to a great-grandfather who traveled), and when you put it all together I think it’s marvelous.

Handsome and I hung up our artwork last weekend– a six-hour-endeavor that involved a lot of spacial reasoning and math, neither of which are my strengths– and when we were done I stood back and almost cried because it was so beautiful. It was the last thing I needed to make this place feel like my home, and it’s not just some nesting instinct.

I’ve always been spellbound by beauty in any form. Music, nature, art, architecture, food, fashion, literature, makeup … I’m enraptured every time I play Smetna’s “Moldau,” or when I see moonlight sparkling in a woodland clearing, or when I take a of bite chicken alfredo, or when I walk around some of the grand architecture of my nation’s capital. I always want those moments to last forever. And, last week, when I felt that last bit click into place in my home, something inside of me breathed out a trembling breath of relief.

For most of my life I felt guilty about this impulse, this need for my life to be enriched by order and beauty. I thought my attraction to quality and elegance made me discontent and materialistic and selfish. The fact that I’m frequently repulsed by kitsch and spaces that don’t include any sense of proportion or artfulness made me think that I was a morally deficient person. There must be something wrong with me if I placed that much value on physical things that cost way too much money.

Growing up in the church I did, which had hideous red-and-black carpet, country-blue padded pews and orange glass in the windows, was an interesting experience. The first time I stepped inside a few-centuries-old Catholic church it took my breath away. I had no idea churches (outside of European cathedrals) could be beautiful. In graduate school, I ended up tolerating a Calvinistic-leaning church largely because the church had Gothic arches and stained glass windows (I’m a sucker for Gothic arches).

In graduate school I started realizing that appreciating beauty wasn’t a failing but something ingrained in our collective human soul, built into us by a world of symmetry and saturated color. Even then, though, I still thought of my desire for “nice things” as emblematic of my problem with covetousness. If something about me weren’t corrupted then I wouldn’t constantly be gliding through the “Home Decor” board on Pinterest. I wouldn’t exclaim and ooh! and ah! over Tiffany settings. I wouldn’t drool over Jimmy Choo or Valentino shoes. I wouldn’t constantly want things– and not just anything, but nice things.

Anytime I read a piece on the virtues of minimalism, or the value of casting off the useless and ultimately selfish drive to acquire, I felt twinges and pangs. Why couldn’t I be happy with a tiny home? Why do I always have a running list of things I want to save up for? Our couch is heading toward lumpiness and broken springs, but if I were truly capable of contentment I’d wait until we really needed to replace it instead of already picking out its replacement. When the KonMari method took the internet by storm a bit ago it was pretty frustrating because I look around my home and think all of this brings me joy. That is not a helpful standard.

Then, a few years ago, I took a few Myers-Briggs tests and they all pegged me as an ISTJ, and I read this in one of the profiles:

ISTJs usually have a great sense of space and function, and artistic appreciation. Their homes are likely to be tastefully furnished and immaculately maintained. They are acutely aware of their senses, and want to be in surroundings which fit their need for structure, order, and beauty.

Wait– what?

It had never occurred to me that so much of what I thought of as “materialism” and “covetousness” could be a feature of my personality. I’d never connected the dots between I am extremely observant and detail oriented with I want my surroundings to be in order and pleasant. I’m very much a fan of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” and it’s been extremely helpful for me to know that what something looks like doesn’t matter as much to me as whether or not it is put away. It’s not like my house is never messy, heavens no. But every few weeks when I go through it and tidy and vacuum and dust and mop and scrub I’m so much happier. It’s like a static inside my head goes away.

In fundamentalism, there are very few things, if any, that could be considered morally neutral. I think there is absolutely a line where “wanting things” could become unhealthy or destructive– I could end up in an uncontrollable amount of debt or I could start prioritizing my new sofa over helping people who need it. But it took me a long time to accept that simply looking at something, thinking it’s pretty, and evaluating whether or not it’s something I want to buy is not a moral failing.

For most of my life I felt condemned for something that is a natural consequence of my personality, for appreciating beauty when the world around me could not be more dazzling. It’s amazing how an abusive religion can get inside of your head and twist ordinary things into something worth castigating you over.

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