On February 20th of 2015, I was exhausted.
My wife was struggling to survive, and there was no guarantee she would end up on the list to get the transplant she desperately needed. I was struggling with the burnout that would eventually kick my ass, and a person I had worked hard to help get sober had died of an overdose.
When I was starting out in that work, a mentor told me that if I knew I was going to walk across the desert tomorrow, I should be gorging myself with water tonight. Likewise, he said, if I know that tomorrow I will be surrounded by ugliness, I should strive to gorge myself with beauty to prepare for it. Over time, he insisted I hang out at museums, read good books, watch good films, read poetry, and play in my garden. All in the relentless pursuit of beauty as a prophylactic against the ugliness I would encounter along the way.
But somewhere along that path, I had gotten busy, and those words seemed far away. I needed to be reminded of what was lovely, what was good, and that even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy and pain, there was beauty that could lift us above our mean circumstances and guide us home.
My particular form of ADHD, as I have said before, needs structure, but has trouble creating it, so latching onto existing structures is always helpful. And here we were, in February of 2015, just a few days before Lent.
I sent an email to 35 people who I loved and admired. The subject line was, Hugh’s Newsletter Situation, and the email said, in part:
Here is the deal: I am going to send you an email every Monday during Lent (roughly the next six weeks). I will link to five beautiful things I liked that week – perhaps a picture I liked, perhaps a funny story, perhaps something of profound wisdom. In addition, if I read a book that blew me away, I will mention that, and provide a link to it, too. And if it is a week when something is happening I think you should know about, I will let you know in the email.
And that’s it. No lengthy prose, no huge commitments. Just five things that struck me as beautiful, books I read that were wonderful, and things I think you should know.
If this works (meaning I keep my commitment to you) then I might keep it up – or I might not. I get bored easily.
It was simple: For six weeks, I needed to look for five beautiful things every week – not just random things, but things worth sharing. I figured that committing to share them with others would keep me honest. I’m far more afraid of letting you down than I am of letting me down.
Here we are now, seven years later, and I’m still sending them out every Monday morning. (You can sign up here). Now it goes out to several thousand people, and it’s a bit more polished and I’m older and have more aches and less hair. But my wife got her heart transplant and I came back from burnout and now live an entirely different life in another state entirely.
But what hasn’t changed is my belief in beauty as a prophylactic against the ugliness of the world, and searching for it like my life depends on it. Because I am more and more convinced that it does.