Updated: Sep 3, 2021
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.” ~The Yosemite, John Muir
When my soul starts to shrivel, when I find myself dissatisfied and particularly drained, it is most often because I’ve been too caught up in this business of bread and not beauty. What I mean is, I have been too invested in the day-to-day realities and responsibilities of life: from making money, to handling logistics, to meeting the expectations of others. When I am running on empty and feel slightly desperate, I haven’t been pursuing that which feeds my soul: beauty, art, spiritual connection, deep connection with family and good friends, and the time to simply be. Do you think this might be true of you also?
John Muir, conservationist, author, and founder of the National Park Service, writing after the Industrial Revolution altered our landscapes and our lives, perceived what a life built solely on industry would produce: a diminished internal and physical landscape. He knew we needed to reserve spaces for beauty and spiritual reflection.
Bread is good. Bread is necessary. But so too is beauty. A world focused wholly on the utilitarian, the efficient and the expedient, would be a depleted and depleting world. This is where the arts come in. And nature. And nature’s pure extravagance. As Julia Cameron comments in The Artist’s Way, do we need thousands of species of flowers? In terms of the mechanics of day-to-day living, no. So many varieties, on the surface, seem superfluous. But in terms of beauty, in terms of what the riotous luxury of so much variance does for us, the sheer abundance of it, well, that feeds something in our souls. Not everything has to be useful. Sometimes creation shouts the glory of the beautiful just for beauty’s sake, just for joy’s sake. And we can apply this to how we live out our lives.
When I’m focused mostly on bread, I’m doing what needs to be done, and I’m often operating on autopilot, majoring in the superficials. I’m busy, distracted, and I don’t get to connect intimately with myself, with others, or with my Higher Power. A shift towards beauty is a shift towards that which provides deep intrinsic pleasure and value, even when it feels frivolous to do it. Play is just as important as productivity. In fact, you could argue that play is productive. Maya Angelou explains, “Downtime is as important as the time you spend hunkered down doing your work.” When we don’t make time to play or to be creative, when we stifle our more free-flowing, artistic sides, we actually make it harder to do our work because we cut off a significant energy and life source. Our inner flame starts to dwindle, and its effects can be felt in every area of our lives. Alexander Den Heijer powerfully observes in Nothing You Don’t Already Know, “You often feel tired, not because you’ve done too much, but because you’ve done too little of what sparks a light in you.” If, as St. Irenaeus suggested, “The glory of God is man [humans] fully alive,” then we have to get serious about the business of keeping ourselves fully alive, and we do that, by seeking beauty, not just bread.
While you go about the business today of making metaphorical bread: working, managing, cleaning, checking items off your mental list, how can you insert spaces in your day to “play in and pray in?” How can you prioritize some beauty and meaning and soul-food into today’s schedule? You will never be sorry you made time for it.