The Beauty that Compels Us

By Holly Nelson-Becker

All of us appreciate beauty in our lives. Some of us search for it, expecting to find it in objects, a painting, photo, nature, or what we observe outside ourselves. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet who was able to see clearly what many of us do not. Rumi suggested, Let the beauty we love, be what we do; there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Others of us learn through difficulties and sometimes misadventures that a deeper and more mysterious form of beauty is to be found in our actions. In caregiving where caregivers may under benefit from the social exchange, in serving as a supportive friend or neighbor—bringing groceries over to that older person who has given up his/her driver’s license, in advocating for an older client or patient whose voice is now soft, in recognizing the older person at the entrance to a shop or any place—just recognizing and respecting rather than overlooking him or her—these are ways of bringing about beauty.

It is alarming that studies such as one by Cottrell, Neuberg and Davidio (2005) of emotional reactions to different groups reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and North, Fiske, and Hinshaw’s discussion of aging and intergenerational roots of ageism in the 2012 Psychological Bulletin seem to show resurgence in stigma toward aging. Ageism pulls groups away from each other and toward misunderstanding. When someone is other, they can easily become foe instead of friend. It becomes too easy not to care. Every generation must confront concerns of becoming that generation just before.

Before I became a social worker and gerontologist, I worked in the family business, a janitorial firm. It was a job I was not happy about doing. However, I attended a presentation that suggested everyone should be proud of the work they do. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, it matters to someone. It matters to the whole. In recognition of the accomplishment, we should sign our names in the air when we left a room we had cleaned. That is a signature no one can see, but it imprints the space of our hearts. This action serves as a reminder to leave beauty behind us.

Why does attention to beauty matter? Martin Seligman for many years taught the theory of learned helplessness and lack of control which emerged out of Aaron Beck’s work on depression. Later he brought a different focus to his work. That focus was on character strengths, optimism, positive psychology and human flourishing. Although some forms of depression are biologically based, a focus on flourishing changes the conversation to one of prevention and hope. In aging, this has been translated into the concept of successful aging.

Successful aging, defined broadly by Gasiorek, Fowler, and Giles in their 2015 article in Human Communication Research, moves beyond objective functional measures to highlight the process of how one engages and experiences one’s own life. Everyone has the potential to create beauty and professionals in aging are especially called to this task, to help their clients see beauty in their own lives or in moment-to moment exchanges that are authentic.

Professionals who work on interprofessional teams in palliative care and hospice settings find many opportunities to co-create beauty in messy situations as they work together to achieve healing. Building such teams is not easy if communication is impeded by other team members, blocked by family members or obstructed by patients themselves. Beauty is never more important or more needed at these times.

There are two moments that are key: the first observing moment where awareness of splendor steals into our minds, and the second reflecting moment where we realize and stretch the edges of what just occurred. Beauty unfolds in the pause that reflection allows us to witness in the second moment, if we miss it in the initial observation. As we share in difficult situations with our aging clients, let us renew our commitment to search for and create beauty together in the transitory moment that is everything that matters.

Holly Nelson-Becker is author of Spirituality, Religion, and Aging: Illuminations for Therapeutic Practice available from Sage Publications. She is professor of social work at Loyola University, Chicago. She also has a website. Her book is an integration of research and practice that provides an interprofessional framework on working with spirituality and religion.

Holly and Kim Sangster, PhD, MSW, MDiv presented on Tuesday March 21, 2017 in Chicago at the 2017 ASA Aging in America Conference. Their session was “Interdisciplinary Teams, Training, Team Regard, and Turnover Intention in Social Work.”