From the beginning of our human story, beauty has been a source of value and meaning in nearly every culture. Poets and artists have risen to greatness in its pursuit, wars have been fought, wounds have been healed, and lives enriched by its alluring value.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world… The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.” As believers, adventurers, and creators, the concept of beauty can both illuminate and define where we, and often our culture, place our greatest values. It seeps into the grand narrative of our lives, as a force to draw or repel, yet also impacts how we live each day. What we declare as beautiful reveals who we are.
What we declare as beautiful reveals who we are.
As someone from the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest, I find beauty in a cozy chair next to a fireplace on a winter day, or in a laughter-filled room of friends gathered around a dinner table. But where does someone from the plains of East Africa or a plateau in Tibet find their form of beauty?
That is what I wanted to discover. To glimpse the foundational values of different cultures, this became my question:
“Where do you find beauty in your everyday life?”
And so I set out on an around-the-world journey—a full circumnavigation of our planet through 13 countries—to find the stories written with beauty across the world. For as Emerson put it, “beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Washington D.C, USA
”I find beauty in a sunrise. When I wake up in the morning… I thank God for life. I look outside for the sun. Do you know why? Without it, [there is] only darkness. No life. Yet in the void there is something beautiful. Light comes from the darkness. So I find my beauty every morning from the sun. And the God that made all this world.”
Easter Island, Chile
Cecelia Burns Araki
“I find beauty in living on the island and having a simple life. There is an energy, or ‘mana,’ full of peace that connects people to this island. My husband has a farm and so we plant and have animals, and while there is a lot of sacrifice in planting and working outside, you still have touch with the earth. Living on this island you have beauty everywhere. Even when we have bad weather the island still tends to be solemn and quiet and peaceful. This place provides a freedom, a space that you can’t find anywhere else.”
“I find beauty inside my family. I have ten siblings and my twin brother and I are both in the last year of school. I’m pursuing a degree in commerce to one day be able to run my own business, while my brother is pursing teaching. I don’t have children yet, but my family is everything.”
Daintree Rainforest, Australia
“I find beauty here in the land of my ancestors. I grew up in this rainforest, learning to appreciate it and our history here. I’m a descendent of the people that actually roamed in this rainforest—my great grandmother was born under the nearby waterfall. So to be here and show what this place means to us [Aboriginals] is life-changing. I find being involved with nature everyday is something that you can’t beat—it’s like paradise. So to have this rainforest still here today is beautiful.”
Siem Reap, Cambodia
“I really like the beauty of a sunrise. The war [Cambodian Civil War under the Khmer Rouge] made people suffer, because we’ve all seen people killed in front of us. We’ve seen bomb explosions nearby. We’ve seen our parents die. All of those pictures remain on the Cambodian’s mind. Even after the war finished, they remain on our minds. That’s why we do not want such a thing to happen ever again. We want to live in peace. So after the sunrise I look around to see smiles, where everything is suddenly great and good… where we can find a new, positive attitude. It’s when we can say hello to the world and smile to everybody.”
Ince Lake, Myanmar
Daw Tin Yee
“I am 67 years old and I find beauty in my work. For 20 years I have worked here, in this silk factory. I have two grown children, but my husband passed away 16 years ago so I am now alone. Working here makes me happy, because I don’t have to stay at home. Rather, every day from 8am to 5pm I can come here and create work that I am proud of, with other women who are like family.”
“I find beauty in spending time with these men [three older Holy Men sitting with Vikas] and learning under their mentorship. I was orphaned as a child, without a family to call my own when these Holy Men took me in, under their custody, to raise me as a disciple. There are different castes, and creeds, and colors in the world, but we like and worship one name as God, the creator of the universe.“
A Tibetan Man, Cienn (L) and a Chinese Man, Zhao (R)
Jiayang Zhao from China: “I find beauty in travel and the things human beings have made from history.” Cienn from Tibet, interpreted through Zhao: “I can’t find beauty easily—at least not every day. But I find it during life with friends. I think it’s a nice thing to be with friends.”
“Music has been the greatest source of beauty in my life ever since I began playing when I was 16 years old—and I am now 80! It has been my passion, a gift from God, and it is due to this music I have made it so far. Music is peace of mind. That is why I make it.”
“I find beauty in the different places I’ve lived [the Maasai are nomadic people] and the new life that might be ahead of us. My life is concerned with livestock, with keeping our cattle, because without the cattle you cannot do anything. But I want to change to a new way of life, because the life with the cattle is now very difficult. The climate is changing and young people want more for their futures, but we must also educate the younger children to keep touch with our traditions.”
“I like reading, but I find beauty in talking with people about intricate cultural issues that you don’t find in books. Like how the furnace of the local hammam [bath house] is run by a man who heats the waters for this staple of Moroccan life, or how the local bakery is a place where people in the different districts can come together to not just bake their bread, but also gossip and socialize. I just love how exploring these aspects of Moroccan life draws you to some very important social themes and then leads to cultural issues that matter in the country.”
Upon returning from this whirlwind search for beauty around the world, my mind continued to trek through the villages and valleys, the monuments and mountaintops I had visited to collect these answers.
With every response I was struck how not a single answer touched on superficial beauty. Somehow there was an unspoken understanding across cultures, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds that beauty, in its truest form, stands for something far more significant than mere physical loveliness. In beauty, individuals find purpose and meaning to navigate the world they know. Our need for beauty runs deep across humanity, and it is in this commonality that I find us most closely linked. For if beauty is God’s handwriting, then it is our great Storyteller who connects us all.
All photos by Giselle Gonzales.