(Note: Issues we face today—issues of race and the value of an ordinary human life in the face of a pandemic—are, at their root, about how we see beauty in another person. So these reflections from Landon Saunders are especially relevant now. GM)
My friend, Dr. Richard Beck, poses the question, “Do you want to have a beautiful life?” An inability to see beauty in a human life costs us something precious to a good life, a flourishing life.
In 1962 I met a deeply troubled boy, thirteen, who had already been in a number of juvenile lockups. When something went wrong in the community, James Garner was the first suspected and accused. I will not describe here what he looked like the day I met him. I will only say I had never met anyone like what I saw…and visited with. His was a “throw-away” life in the eyes of most. This lad soon came to live in my home during his teen years.
And, slowly, something buried from sight began to appear—traces of something beautiful. He would never have known how to say it and would never have thought to use the word “beautiful,” yet, in spite of all his failures, he wanted a beautiful life.
Traces of something beautiful began to appear in an infectious laugh; in some drawings and small sculptures he created; in his instant forgiveness for any slight, any wrong, however unjust that was inflicted on him; the absence of grudges, resentments, blame, or feeling sorry for himself; no expectations for anything given to him but everything received with a bit of twinkle in his eye.
Without my knowing it at the time (the years were often trying, difficult), I was witness to something I have come to recognize as beauty in a life to which no one would have assigned the word.
Slowly, through the years and to this day, a sense of life that is wrapped up in the question Richard Beck raises and that I witnessed in the life of James Garner, has informed what I look for and treasure in the lives of those I meet—something called beauty.
Last fall, I received a call telling me James had died. At his wake and memorial, I listened to the stories told by his wife, his son and his daughter, the people he had known through the years— stories told with quaking voices and tear-filled eyes of how James had affected their lives. It was a time of beauty.
At the beginning I was to have been his teacher. What I didn’t know then was that he would be my teacher, one of the most powerful of my entire life. And so, I said “Farewell” with heart running over with emotions for which I have no words.
“Do you want a beautiful life?” Do we recognize beauty in a life?