Monday, April 7, 2014

Are You a Redwood or a Rhododendron?

 I frankly recoil whenever I see one of those online personality tests purporting  to tell me what food I am or what what color--it is as though we could be confined to a single term to describe ourselves fully to others. Well, on a recent walk in Sequoia Park in Eureka, I decided to cave. Transfixed by the afternoon shadow play of light, glinting trees and  splashy rhododendrons, I figured out that people were either redwood or rhododendron types--massive, steady and self-contained or variegated pink and rosy flourishes of inspiration. 
The 18th century philosopher, Edmund Burke, contrasted the aesthetic idea of the sublime to the beautiful. He wrote:

"For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions." 

So, if you're sublime, then you are awe-striking, a bit melancholic and domineering in your emotional influence on others while, if beautiful, like our rhododendrons, your emotional style is quainter and quieter, perhaps kind and sanguine in relationship and mood.  Later philosophers and poets opposed the sublime nations of Northern Europe to the beautiful Mediterranean in a way to bolster Romanticism over Classicism in artistic and literary style. Could our Unitarian Universalism, like the bifurcated Yang and Yin of Chinese cosmology, also echo the contrast between the sublime and the beautiful, the unity of God to the varied manifestations of Universal Love?
Maybe, just maybe, I can retract my initial hesitation to categorize. More like emotionally tinged ideas and root guiding metaphors, we are sublime or beautiful, not in character, but in experience--each moment diving us into majesty or love whenever we enter a state of deep contemplation. We are both redwoods and rhododendrons.

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