Why Great Beauty is actually in the day to day
Some of my favorite stories follow hopelessly broken protagonists looking for happiness. TV shows like Mad Men, BoJack Horseman, and…
Some of my favorite stories follow hopelessly broken protagonists looking for happiness. TV shows like Mad Men, BoJack Horseman, and Breaking Bad are some of the best examples of this subgenre. They examine their characters with nuance and without conventionality. They don’t fall into the familiar tropes most stories with flawed protagonists fall into.
The worst of these stories end the same way. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist has an event that changes their life and gives it meaning. Usually this is meeting a romantic interest or falling in love. At the conclusion of the movie, they realize love conquers all and they live happily ever after.
Because of movies like this, we too await some sort of life changing, beautiful event. We look for somebody else to complete us and fill the holes we have in our hearts. We think, “It’s gonna be okay. We are going to fall in love. We are going to experience great beauty and then we will be whole.”
The reason I like Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is because it rejects this narrative. The protagonist, Jep, meets many women he could love and yet undeniably inside of him, there still is that human existential void. He is a writer who writes a book which propels him to fame, yet he never follows his initial success with another book.
When asked why, Jep gives an answer that fascinates me.
He says, “I was searching for a great beauty. And I didn’t find it.”
Just like everyone, I have that existential void I am looking to fill. And just like the protagonists of the stories I hated so much, I tried to fill it with things that just made it worse. When that didn’t work, just like Jep, I ached for a great beauty.
And I finally think I found it.
I thought of great beauty as something I will happen to chance upon like casually stumbling on a pot of gold. I initially believed its more magical for life to hand me beauty because creating beauty makes the idea seem more mundane, more day to day, more daunting. My life has taught me the opposite, however, there is something magical about noticing great beauty all around us and learning to create it.
Like it or not, 99% of life isn’t in the moments where we first fall in love, or have a first kid, or win that big game. 99% of life is in the ordinary. When our life flashes before our eyes, 99% is going to be the little moments, the day to day, the daunting journey to creating happiness.
And, look if anybody every told me this... I would say, “Okay, Okay. Trust me, I know this.” But, if I look back in my life, I tend to discount these little moments so often. I think it’s because my threshold for what counts as a ‘beautiful moment’ in my life is just too damn high.
The movie, Lunchbox, had a story which drove this point home for me.
One day, the protagonist comes across a box set that his wife used to love. Something in him is drawn to it. He isn’t sure why. He puts in the first tape and after he watches that puts in the next episode. He watches them show after show, episode after episode and finally after staying up all night he realizes what why he was so drawn to it.
Every Sunday when his wife used to watch the show he would be outside on the patio fixing his bike, doing chores, or smoking. And once in a while, he would glance back at the living room for a second - just for a second- and he would see the reflection of his wife on the TV screen laughing at a joke. He would glance over at the reflection, then go back to whatever he was doing.
He realizes what he was trying to find watching episode after episode was another chance to see the reflection of his dead wife’s laughing face. He was looking to re-create one of the happiest memories he had of her. And instead of going back to his chores, or smoking, or fixing his bike… he wished he had kept on looking back then.
This mesmerizing little scene made me realize that I spend way too much time in my own head. Like, I am so type A that I feel the need to be productive every single second of every single day. But actually, instead of being truly productive I keep myself busy constantly thinking about work, doing meaningless chores, and having my eyes glued to my phone.
And maybe the most productive, beautiful, life-affirming thing I could do is to not look at my phone, notice my surroundings, and keep looking.
Because when I started doing this, I noticed things that I had never ever noticed before. I realized that life is full of these intricate human dramas that are always unfolding in front of our eyes.
It’s just the little things that catch my eye, like:
An innocent smile a girl has while looking at the guy she started dating, the exhausted doting love a mother has when she looks at her newborn, or even something as simple as a guy being amused by a good book.
There is so much beauty in those simple moments.
“Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.” -Rumi
We are so focused on being wryly cynical, on being ‘productive’ 24/7, and on keeping up with the joneses that we forget that none of that stuff really matters. We aren’t going to regret taking a minute or two a day to take in life’s beauty. It isn’t the big things which are beautiful. The little things are the good stuff.
“My wife used to fart in her sleep.
One night her fart was so loud it woke the dog up, she woke up and said, ‘was that you?’ I said ‘Yeah’. I didn’t have the heart to tell her…
Will, she’s been dead for 2 years, and that’s the stuff I remember: wonderful stuff you know? Little things like that. Those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I know about: that’s what made her my wife.” -Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting
The most important part for me is the noticing. There are many artists I’ve begun to admire recently because they are able to notice the beauty of the ordinary in ways I can’t begin to. If there is any doubt in your mind that great beauty resides in the mundane, read writers like Carver and look at paintings by Vermeer. Many paintings during Vermeer’s time were of important biblical or mythological scenes or of famous important people. Vermeer rejected this by shining a light at the routine and daring us to look closer. He is saying to us through the painting: look, this is important.
And to try to see the world like artists like Vermeer see it, I’ve made finding the routine beautiful a habit. Everyday I take a couple minutes to put my phone down and look at the magic around me. And I’ve been noticing, it actually makes me happier.
And look, I am going to continue to look forward to the big gorgeous moments in my life. But noticing the beauty of the mundane has given me a new appreciation to what a wonderful gift life is. It may sound cheesy, but looking at the ordinary world like its magical is the great beauty.
Jep, the protagonist of The Great Beauty, comes to a similar realization.
He travels back to the island where he first fell in love, and he remembers how he used to see everything there when he was young man.
And at that moment, Jep sees something that has been eluding him before. His knowledge of how things are and his cynicism about the world have blinded him to the beauty of life. Instead of his usual intellectual pretenses, he decides to learn how to look at the world like a tourist would.
And finally in this shift of perspective, he finds the great beauty he spent most of his life searching for.
He closes his eyes and starts to form the first sentences of his new novel.
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Inspired By/Special Thanks to:
Louis Ferdinand Celine, Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra, Palo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty, Rumi, Half Hour Intern, Michael Goorijan, Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting, About Time, Vermeer, Raymond Carver, School of Life, Alain de Botton, Shree Dhamija, Aniket Mutatkar, Dylan Nguyen, Andrew Kwan, Carlos Moya, Amelie, Vivek Manickam, The Office, Brittany Levers