There’s an amazing scene in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) is attempting to capture a photograph of a snow leopard in the Himalayan mountains.
He sits bundled up on a cold and rocky mountain ledge, his large camera mounted on a tripod in front of him. He peers back and forth between the view finder and the landscape before him as he quietly talks to his companion, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) whose wind-worn beard is frosted over with ice.
As they sit and wait, Sean tells Walter that the snow leopard is known as the “ghost cat” because it never lets itself be seen. Walter is pondering the nickname and the impossibility of capturing this photograph when Sean adds, “Beautiful things don’t ask for your attention.”
After a long and exhausting wait, the moment finally arrives. The snow leopard emerges from hiding into view. While looking through the view finder, Sean shushes Walter in mid-sentence and pulls him by his coat collar towards the camera to let him have a look. After Walter has a satisfying glance, they trade places again. With one eye closed, Sean peers through the camera and prepares to capture the shot he’s been waiting for.
But then, Sean slowly pulls back from the camera and stares at the snow leopard in the distance. Walter, confused, asks when he’s going to take the shot.
Sean, letting the question linger, remains silent. Eventually he says, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. So I stay in it.” As he stares into the distance, a smile of satisfaction comes across his face. In a matter of seconds the snow leopard is gone. His coveted photograph is lost and he’s not bothered by it in the least.
I love this scene because it makes three profound statements about beauty.
1. Experiencing true beauty takes intention and effort.
Let’s say I visit an art museum to look at an installation of paintings. I could walk through the exhibit in a matter of fifteen minutes and see all the paintings, but in order to really appreciate and experience the art I have to go slowly and take time with each piece. I have to be mentally and emotionally invested in the process.
We’re accustomed to quick fixes, easy solutions, and convenient ways of living. We prefer coffee from a Keurig rather than a french press. We’d rather take a “magic” pill to help us achieve our weight loss goals instead of putting in the hard work of eating healthy and working out. We’ve grown to expect instant gratification, but the experience of beauty doesn’t always fit into that paradigm. It’s slow and requires a bit of heavy lifting.
In order for Sean to capture the photo of a snow leopard he has to climb dangerous mountains and sit in the cold for hours on end. He has to wait, quiet and still. And even then, there’s no guarantee that he’ll get his photo.
“Beautiful things don’t ask for your attention.” They make you work for the pleasure of the experience.
2. Experiencing true beauty is often enhanced with others.
There are lots of things in life I do by ourselves. I workout alone. I go to the dentist alone. I run errands alone. But I never go to the movies alone. I never go to a concert by myself. I always go with other people. Why? Because the experience of beauty is often enhanced with others.
If I go to a concert alone I may enjoy the music, but when I try to tell someone else about the show they don’t have the same appreciation for the experience because they weren’t there. When I talk about it with someone who was there we share in each other’s joy. It strengthens our relationship and the appreciation of the beauty.
This is why as soon as the snow leopard comes into view, Sean pulls Walter over to the camera to have a look. He wants to share in the moment with someone else. He’s so over come by what he see he doesn’t want to keep it to himself. He longs for a mutually shared experience.
3. We all too often settle for cheap and counterfeit versions of beauty.
I’ve grown so accustomed to virtual reality that I wonder if I’m losing my appreciation for the real thing. There are many times a wonderful moment happens right in front of me and I miss it because I’m trying to capture it on my phone. That ever happen to you? I may have it preserved for later, but it’s never going to be as good as the real thing.
Sean O’Connell’s move to watch the snow leopard in real life rather than capture the picture is a bit foreign and bizarre. But he knows that a photo won’t do it justice. He has such an appreciation for the real thing that he sacrifices documenting the moment at the expense of the recognition that the photo would bring him.
I, on the other hand, have grown so infatuated with technology that my desires for beauty can diminish and weaken. I settled for video clips and photos layered with digital filters. I’ve grown satisfied with experiencing the world through virtual means that I neglect the work of experiencing it in real life, with real people, in real time.
Perhaps the real problem is we’re losing our sense of awe and wonder. As we get caught in the daily grind of life our imagination can wither. We end up settling for an understanding of beauty that revolves around self-image and sex appeal, rather than pursuing beauty that points to something awesome and transcendent.
So maybe we need a new set of eyes. Maybe it’s time to get outside of ourselves and reignite our imagination. Maybe it’s time to climb a mountain just for the sake of seeing what’s there. Or maybe, it starts with leaving the distraction of your phone at home for an afternoon to simply practice being present with who and what’s around you.
Beauty is around us all the time. The question is do we have eyes to see it?