The Sunflower Principle

March 30, 2009

My choice of a sunflower is arbitrary. As far as I know, all plants grow toward the light.

People are no different.

Take a pretty girl, tell her over the course of her life how pretty she is, and she will grow in the direction of the attention she receives for her physical beauty. She will know how to dress, how to tan, pluck and preen, how to position herself to receive the most direct light. Her view of herself and her posture in relation to other people will reflect the validation that she receives.

Take a boy, a natural athlete, and give him slaps on the back, trophies, and encouragement. His identity will be wrapped up in his physical prowess. He will position himself to receive more validation, more attention. 

Our behavior is no mystery. We all want attention, so we grow toward the light. A fine ear for music, precocious acting ability, an attractive sense of humor, brains—we follow natural relief to praise.

How many beautiful men and women do you know who have remarkable integrity or character? Be honest.

Has anyone else noticed The Sunflower Principle?

I am a recovering cynic, so I may very well be wrong.

How many exceptional athletes do you know who take really good care of the people in their lives?

I know I’m making a generalization, but I have noticed trends.

Why do you think really pretty women and really handsome men are so rarely unselfish, compassionate people? Why are so many professional athletes unsuitable as role models?

Please respond with a comment. I’d like to know your thoughts.

mono no aware

March 17, 2009

The summer before my senior year of college, I spent two months working with Warringah Church of Christ outside of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. My friends Benji Jones and Hunter Harris were also helping out. Within a few days, we’d discovered that your average Australian lives by a different rhythm than your average American. We’d gone expecting to every day to be full of service—home maintenance projects, church work, and vacation bible school. 

What we found instead was plenty of down time. Hunter and I had both brought our bouldering shoes, so we’d take a bus out to Malibu beach and do some bouldering on the house-sized rock there. We’d take a bus or ferry across the bay to downtown and eat dinner or go to a movie. We went surfing a few times and went on plenty of hikes around Manley and Bondi beach.

Near the famous shell-shaped opera house is the Royal Botanical Gardens. After meandering through it one day, we bumped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I am always surprised by what I take away from such places packed with beauty, history, and creativity. My favorite was an exhibition of Japanese art. I’m a sucker for the placards next to each piece. Where else would I learn that the Japanese see in the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms the transience of all life. 

One phrase in particular has stuck with me: mono no aware.

We were staying with the Walmsleys at the time, and lucky for me, Yuriko Walmsley could translate the words. She said they were archaic, no longer used. They meant “the sadness of things.”

Mono no aware imprinted in my memory because I have seen it in my father’s eyes. I have heard coyotes sing it in their dirges to the moon. Even in moments of exuberant joy, it stands in the corner and follows our laughter with a hint of regret. Nothing stays the same. We are but a vapor. We are sound and fury.

Like water, sadness runs through everything.  
I ran across a lovely letter written by the poet Franz Wright the other day. He was commenting on a poem my friend Anna Laura wrote and posted on her blog.

He wrote:

Haven’t we completely misunderstood the true nature of happiness? I am not even sure I understand these terms anyone: sadness, happiness! I mean this literally, even though I would like to be happy as much as anyone else. But happiness can clearly not be expected to last or remain the same, anymore than this life of ours can. I am not even sure I can tell the difference between happiness and sadness anymore! There are moments of sadness and loneliness when I love my life every bit as intensely as I do during moments of great joy.

Just some 3:30 a.m. thoughts. There is a sadness in your words, but this seems to give them a kind of poignancy and beauty that I respond to and recognize.Maybe we just need to give up all thought or intention of attempting to control these things-it is so obvious that that is impossible!-and just allow ourselves to be carried, or guided, without bitterness, with trust? I don’t know, but this is how it seems to me at the moment.

When I read his words, I thought, mono no aware. The sadness of things. John Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” on his tombstone. The sadness of things. A wife and her baby killed by a drunk driver. The sadness of things. Our loves lost, our fears realized, our dreams trampled, our families splintered—the sadness of things.

Each morning when I arise, if I will continue to breathe and move in this sad, beautiful, broken world, I must continue to believe that God has written my name and yours on the palm of his hand.

Appetite for Beauty

February 28, 2009

montanaAt church camp we watched a series of Igniter videos.  One showed a montage of clips and single images, scenes from the earth, vistas and panaromas, plains and mountains and oceans.  Flocks of birds lifting into flight, the vast beauties of the earth.  What impressed me was the variety.  The earth holds many kinds of beauty.

Beauty is the question.  Why do we never tire of drinking in beauty?  Why are the stars endlessly fascinating?  Why does watching the rollers become breakers and spread onto the beach in foam-fringed sheets never lose its appeal?  Why does tree after tree, and mountain after mountain fascinate us?  Why do we never tire of beauty?

I think because there is a natural order of things.  Perhaps not the Great Chain of Being, but I think we lose happiness when we strive to make gods of ourselves.  We seize too much, we take too much into our dominion.  We subjugate one another and rape the earth.  In our fallenness, no wonder the earth groans as with birthing pains.  When we, the pinnacle of creation, fall into rebellion, we send the rest of the cosmos out of whack.

The world is off-kilter, groaning for restoration and healing.  We need vast expanses of beauty to remind us that our control reaches only so far.  Out there over the deep oceans and high, snow-capped mountains, we feel our smallness, our transience, and we are humbled.  Humility was meant to be a part of the natural order.  Unfortunately, the phrase “knowing one’s place” has taken on negative connotations, referring more to a social hierarchy than an preordained organization of creatures and forces.


When we disrespect our parents, we upset the natural order.  We are to respect our elders, to treat them with deference and to protect their dignity.  When I take the life of another human being, I upset the natural order.  

God does not hand out death warrants anymore, at least none that I can fathom.  When we claim that God sanctions our wars, our capital punishment, our law enforcement, our abortions, our euthanasia, and our self defense, we take death into our own hands.  We take it upon ourselves the responsibility of doling our life or death, of judging one life worth more than another.  We place different values on different lives.  The unborn child deserves to live; the serial killer-rapist deserves to die.

Of course, no one take responsibility for the death.  The executioner is simply doing his job.  The legislators are simply transmitting the wishes of the people.  The judges are simply honoring the spirit of the law.  Blame is dispersed.  Leo Tolstoy explores this phenomenon in depth in The Kingdom of God Is Within Us.  How is it that men do things while in the military, commit all sorts of atrocities for their governments and countries, to protect their “freedoms,” things which they would never do in their private lives?  What forces are in place that draw these men into a certain trajectory of violence and unquestioning, uncritical subservience?

montana4So the question of beauty persists.  We can never drink our fill.  Mountains and oceans and stars and even campfires always fascinate us.  We stare at them for hours and days.  Because we sense on some basic human level that they help to explain our salvation.  Salvation comes from outside of ourselves.  The same way we cannot master the hurricanes or forest fires and neither could we resist the fires of those stars in the heavens.  We cannot also master the tempests that rage in us.  Lust and greed and arrogance and pride and vanity and selfishness.  We do not have the resources in ourselves to pluck out these weeds.  And even if we could pluck one or two, they proliferate so quickly like dandelions that in even moving the one to the compost heap or incinerator to be burned, we merely disperse its seeds across the lawn.  If I think that by forces of my will and self-control that I can cure myself of lust.  By averting my eyes or by downloading a program to send a list of all the sites I’ve visited to my friends or by putting some sort of filter on the internet or tv and throwing away the password.  I can do all this and put a bandaid, but I have not touched the hemorrhaging.  I live in a fallen and rebellious world.  My lust is symptomatic of a perverted mind dwelling in a society of perverted minds.  Can I dip a bucket into a dirty puddle and expect to draw out a single cup of clean water?  As soon as I break the surface of the water with my bucket, I stir the water.  I can be very diligent, very vigilant, and attempt to snuff out every flicker of lust I find in my life but I can transform my smoldering spirit which produces these flickers.

In looking at beauty I feel the smallness of my own ability to create something of lasting significance.  I cannot even master myself.  Oceans remind me that I am but a vapor.  Acknowledging my need is the greatest thing I can do.  In admitting my helplessness and ugliness, I take the first step towards the beautiful rooms of grace God has prepared for those who surrender.  Can I look into the green distances and heights of mountains and own my insignificance and prostrate myself before God, saying Help me?  Help me, Father.