The Ancient Modern
Fitted for Gracefulness / Joshua Alan Sturgill
We spend much mental effort trying to mimic the forms our culture tells us are graceful.
But the great Traditions tells us, instead, to find the grace proper to our form.
Bodies and minds are variously gifted and variously proportioned. Each body, each soul has a grace—a way of thinking, walking, eating, speaking—which is proper to it at different steps along the human journey. But this grace is not individualistic or “original” in the modern sense of these terms.
There are ways of gracefulness common to all of us, because we share a common humanity.
I find that in contemporary culture, finding the grace that fits our form is very, very difficult. In traditional cultures, there were tools, methods, simple ideas for achieving poise, calm and elegance. There were “Ages of Life” and stages of spiritual development that could be recognized and affirmed.
Now, with the substitution of entertainment for education and conformity for development, we are conditioned from a young age to seek unfitting and inappropriate graces—artificial means and standards which prevent the inner life from becoming revealed as we age and mature. Instead, the inner life is kept submerged beneath the busyness and allure of appearance.
Here are two simple examples of artificial graces taking the place of the more natural.
Once, I attended a high Church Feast where I sang in the choir which afforded me with a view of the congregation. Hundreds of people were there, of many ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. I’m not certain why, but it struck me suddenly that almost no one in the crowd had white hair. Yet this was a gathering which included many in their 70’s or 80’s. At a second glance, I saw that most of the elderly people there—men and women—had dyed their hair.
I wondered why this was so; it seemed more than a mere style choice. I felt in myself a mixture of disappointment along with the curiosity. I saw in that moment how the grace proper to aging had been smothered by the grace proper to youth. And I saw in this eclipse that the elderly looked foolish, but more importantly, the young were deprived of images of beauty to which they could aspire.
As a second example, I attended a discussion group of about twenty men roughly my own age. The discussion concerned art and literacy and which leaned toward the philosophical. But during the informal conversation afterward, we (strangely) came around to fitness routines. No one present was overweight, but no one looked like a model or actor. Many lamented that they had “let themselves go” or “needed to get back in shape.”
I realized as the conversation continued that we had all, to some degree or another, absorbed the notion that we should look like actors. The actor and model were our image of health. Instead of following the lecture by encouraging each other to pursue art, study, meditation, faithfulness to spouse and family, generosity and literacy—we instead talked about recent “scientifically proven” diets.
It felt as if we were all attempting to fit into the same uniform—a uniform sized, styled and issued by a culture with which we had just affirmed our disagreement during the lecture. Yet, the grace proper to middle age is that of looking away from self, preparing the way for the next generation, beginning the process of letting go of external control and developing the relationships that will carry us on into later life.
Dyed hair and exercise fads are only symptoms of our lack of grace. They are ready examples because they decorate and emphasize the body. More dangerous are fashions and fads of the soul. We unconsciously subscribe to the trends, obsessions and philosophies embedded in the media we consume every day.
Simply talking about how bad things are in the media doesn’t help. This only adds negative ties to the dependence we already have. When we make the culture an enemy, we bind ourselves to it even more tightly. An “us/them” mentality requires and ensures a “them.”
Many say they are opposed to media, yet follow news feeds and Facebook avidly. Why, instead, do we not pursue simplicity and quietude, smaller meals and plain clothing, face-to-face community, and adherence to ancient disciplines as they have been given to us? These graces are not opposed to media, to trends or fashion. They simply do not take fashion into account.
It might be good for us to avoid too much conversation and concentrate instead on finding examples of grace in our communities and learning from them. We should seek out the elderly who exemplify the best of age and experience. We should make friends of those in middle age unconcerned with hanging on to youth, but rather live selflessly for the good of their families.
Re-educating ourselves to appreciate natural beauty will require awareness and effort. But I believe this re-education is possible, despite our culture’s addiction to the extreme and synthetic.
Finally, what do we hope to gain by hanging on to one of life’s graces—youth—at the expense of all the others? I think we hope to capture immortality. Our culture, through the text and images presented to them, prematurely forces children into adult thoughts and decisions. And, those of us who are older are taught to long for the pills, cosmetics and strategies that will take us back to our “glory days.”
However, from the perspective of Tradition—religious, philosophical, social—youth is exactly the opposite of immortality. The beauty proper to youth is one of change, growth, movement—a movement pointing toward eventual loss and decay. Youth is a vibrant but external beauty.
In contrast, the beauty proper to old age is the beauty of rest, completion and preparation. It is the beauty of the inner life emerging victoriously from the restless arc of the mortal into the glory of personhood. A graceful elderly man or woman should be the treasure, the heart and the hope of his or her community. But we no longer see this. We look only at externals and try to maintain the external long past its purpose.
If we do not learn again to age gracefully, accepting each grace as it is given, where else can the next generation look except to the false graces of modernity that lead to shallow conformity—away from the manifold Beauty proper to the human soul?