The Complementary Natures of Beauty and Melancholy

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 - 5:01 pm

The Complementary Natures of Beauty and Melancholy

In the American midwest where I live, it’s autumn — a season of great beauty and deep melancholy, at least for me.
At moments — as I walk down my street, through a nearby park, or in the more distant woods — I am stopped in my tracks by endless arrays of color and form, light and shadow, that no artist could fully capture. At other moments — as I see the leaves drop and the dark skeletons of the trees emerge — I am laid low by the brevity of life and the way all green, growing, and glorious things sooner or later pass away.
But the older I get, the more I find that these two feelings complement rather than compete with each other.
The fact that all things die makes me even more grateful for the beauty we can find in nature and human nature. And if, in that gratitude, we are willing to cultivate the earth and the human community, what falls to the ground around us and among us can help create the conditions that allow the beauty of new life to arise.
I love the way Rilke puts it in this poem: “…there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, hold up all this falling.” What can I say but praise be and amen.

Autumn
by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all the other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one… It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands,
infinitely calm, hold up all this falling.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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