Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is every soul beautiful?

We say of a particularly wonderful person, He is a beautiful soul. Who is the person we say this of? Someone who is loving, generous, magnanimous, humble, and lives an examined life, perhaps?

Is every soul beautiful? There is an implied comparison in the statement She is a beautiful soul, and the conclusion could be that no, every soul is not beautiful. People whose actions consistently demonstrate anger, vengeance, hatred, greed, cruelty—can these be traits of a beautiful soul?

But I believe that every soul of every individual who has ever lived is beautiful. Each is unique, and each is beautiful beyond imagining.

Like ships from the Black Sea that carried barnacle zebra mussels through the St. Lawrence seaway into our Michigan waters, damaging ecosystems and water treatment plants, people in their individual circumstances and journeys pick up bad habits that suck onto them for their life. And then the bad habits colonize, even into generational and cultural psyches.

I think of that ugly old fish in the poem by Elizabeth Bishop—battered, his skin hanging in strips, yellowed eyes, his lip pierced by five hooks, still fringed with fishing line—a “beard of wisdom.” What did she see, through staring, staring, staring at that fish? How do we recognize, in the end, that she saw something so powerfully beautiful she could only respond in release? We recognize it because we know that something beneath the skin and suffering and dim eyes is beautiful.

With compassion could I even see that a person clothed in ugly hatred and vengeance is suffering, like this battered fish, who was once young and flipped so high in the air above the sparkling water?

The Fish
by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested 
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.


  1. I think you already know how much I love this poem, Ruth. This is how it should be done, isn't it? Utterly awe-inspiring.

    The beautiful soul, the soul born beautiful but corrupted by the world. Yes, I believe this. Though it's often very difficult, when faced with a completely encrusted and tarnished soul, to appreciate with empathic understanding, compassion and forgiveness that original, pristine state of innocence.

    1. Yes, Robert, I know you love it as I love it. For her power of close looking (active staring perhaps?), with language as fresh as the morning, Bishop just can't be beat.

      I believe that if we can find the keys to open the windows to even a tarnished and encrusted soul, something could be turned around. But the vitriol such egos emit often generates a like tarnish in the ones who encounter them. So it becomes increasingly difficult to even want to look for the keys.

  2. Yes, I also believe that we are born with beautiful souls. Alas, however, almost every soul falls prey to the corrupting influence of the world. We press on nonetheless, "boats against the current," as Fitzgerald would say, trying to recover some portion of the authenticity that has been lost.

    The most difficult challenge for me is dealing with those who appear to be soulless, the narcissistic and insensitive purveyors of hate. Intellectually, I know that I should feel compassion for these people—indeed, they may be suffering more than we can imagine—but it runs against the grain of my heart. In time, I hope to be able to see more deeply into the souls of these people, see beneath the the disfigurement that restricts their appearance no less than the five hooks in Bishop's fish. Perhaps, like Bishop, I will learn to see so many rainbows that I am able at last to let go of my preconceptions.

    1. George, there is a sense in Bishop's poem of involuntary rainbow-seeing. I don't know of another poet who, not making particular bones about being spiritual, lives so in the moment with so much attention to detail. As I write this I am discovering that the rainbow was a surprise to her, even though of course with that oil in the water, she would have seen it before. I find this hopeful, for us when we might have the will to see but lack the seeing itself. If we just keep looking and actively staring, we might get a glimpse of it.

      In the meantime, we will continue to do our best to believe the beauty is there, no matter how ugly the appearance. And I will go on ranting as I do in disbelief that anyone could do the things that are done. I pray that I might come to do more and more of the former.

  3. "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!"What extraordinary vision she possessed. How I wish I could see the rainbows in everyone I meet. Children, I believe, emanate rainbow; certain adults, not so much. When--also how-- do we lose that quality of rainbow? When do we lose the ability to see rainbows--is it not a form of trust?
    With compassion, with empathy, yes, rainbow becomes visible. The sad thing I must consider is how much easier it is to see rainbow from a distance than from up close. Much work to be done. Thank you, and thanks to Elizabeth Bishop.

    1. Welcome, my friend. What you wrote, I wonder if that is the root of why I am so besotted with my grandson. There is nothing yet to forgive, on either side. And yes trust! I hadn't thought of it that way. It would be so easy to see in rainbows ... rain (which to some people is a depressing reality, though this year in the US I doubt that many feel that way). But to trust that it is a sign of something promising, as the Bible story of Noah goes, takes a bit of faith.

  4. I was brought up a Christian and somewhere picked up the idea that anyone we meet might be the Christ, which is a wonderful thought....and even if it wasn't Christ that person should be treated with respect and love.
    This is VERY hard to practice sometimes ( as you can easily imagine......)
    As regards the grandchildren, such bountiful unconditional love (on both sides it seems!)
    Henry, aged two and a half, is developing a most determined character.
    The Bishop poem is wonderful, almost makes me believe that poets should be legislators as PB Shelley contended.

    1. Elizabeth, I wonder if you were raised Catholic? I don't recall in my Baptist upbringing anyone ever saying such a beautiful thing! It reminds me also of George Whitman's epigram, painted on the lintel in his Shakespeare & Co bookstore in Paris: Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.

      Oh I love the prospect of Henry (and James) growing into who they are. It takes wise patience to guide without directing, to listen for the peculiar voice of a child, to nudge but not rub out.

      And yes, oh that our politicians and legislators had poet hearts, and could maintain them if they did.

  5. An "eternalized" question, it seems, in that we never seem to answer it once and for all. Why is that? Why don't we all just KNOW that every soul is beautiful? Why do we still ask the question? And who tells us otherwise? What does it say about our own souls to even ask? The "us" vs. "them" dichotomy. What might they be asking of/about us?

    Today I have no answers, just questions. HA! But I do totally love the accompanying poem by Bishop. Thank you, sister.

    1. I think you are right, Boots, that we have gotten into a habit of turning someone into an enemy. We have to blame someone for the mess. We (both "sides") feed it and feed it. But are we as quickly willing to praise when "they" get it right?

      I think the original sin is separation—from ourselves, from the divine, from others, and from the divine in others.

  6. You ask if “Every Soul is Beautiful?” I wish it were true Ruth but just before reading your post I read one in the blog The Examined Life ( where she mentions horrible offensive sites she has seen on the Web – racists. I am deeply saddened by the fact that the US is getting more and more bigoted and racist. I feel that each one of us has to take a stand against it. Each beautiful soul as you say need to take the time to fight this disease. Please go and read her post, you will understand what I am talking about – words can deeply hurt.

    1. Vagabonde, that is despicable. There is no room in this country or world or human race where such bigotry should be tolerated. It is deliberately cruel and hateful, not to mention ignorant. It hurts deeply than anyone would be singled out and degraded so boldly, so sickeningly, and get away with it.

      I don’t know if racial bigotry is growing, or if it is simply more open and apparent. But whichever it is, we have to fight it. Like war, it seems like such an anachronism, and I wonder that anyone can even think that way.

      I hear B.J. Thomas’s voice in my head singing “Everything is Beautiful” and of course it is a nice song and thought. Everything is not beautiful, and some things are absolutely horrifying. I wish I knew the best way to fight this racism, but yes, we each have to step up and speak up any way we can.

  7. Of course I don't have the answer if we all are starting life with a "beautiful soul", but maybe... At least, what then happens during childhood, youth, life in general... certainly has a great influence.

    How was Hitler's soul? I read a book which gave to parallel "biographies" of his life, one being the real one, another fictive one as if he had been admitted by the Vienna Academy of Art. (Of course I can understand why he was not admitted, but it might have been a nice gesture and solution for humanity.)

    1. Hi, Peter. Yes, there is no way of knowing is there. Of course I am the one who asked the question in the post, and now I can ask the question, Does it matter? In some ways it does not matter, I guess. And since we can't know, there is no use expecting to adhere absolutely to one belief or another. But I find that for myself it does matter, because of how I see people, how I think of them, how I treat them. I believe it is possible that Hitler could have been a different person with different circumstances.

      I know this is deep philosophical stuff, and I am in over my head. But I find that for myself this question affects how I view people who live and breathe now. I feel humbled by it, rather than feel superior to them.


All responses are welcome.