“I can’t find the beauty anymore.” I spoke these words to a friend following a talk by Eboo Patel. Patel’s interfaith dialogue work was inspiring, and his story as a Muslim-American helped me reconnect to Islam, so I was excited to attend another of his talks. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes. Yet, within the first ten minutes of his talk, I was angry. I wrote furious notes for the entire hour, challenging ideas that I saw as limited. When Patel finished speaking, I approached him and proceeded to disparage his disregard for women in his talk. I was highly critical, arguing against his responses to my points. We eventually agreed that he could do more to lift up women change makers in history. But I still wasn’t satisfied.
Sadness crept in. What happened? Why was I so critical of someone whose efforts I knew were important and impactful? Many of us present that evening would not release our fundamental disagreement with his social justice vision, and everything good he said was tainted by what we saw as flaws in his view. Maybe it was the “be critical” attitude cultivated by our environment. Maybe we saw so much systemic brokenness that we could not tolerate a willingness to work in inherently oppressive structures. Then it dawned on me: what we were furious about was exactly what was needed for balance. Beauty.
In my frustration, I forgot that Patel opened by speaking on God’s faith in humanity’s goodness and the diversity of creation. It brought me to tears to hear reflections on our potential for love that resonated with the values of many faith traditions. As humans, we crave beauty, and connect to ideas, people, and places that satisfy our love of what we find beautiful. And beauty shows up anywhere, in all parts of our experience that, as best describes it, make our hearts smile. When we find something beautiful, we enter a space of openness that lets us connect to the world in an appreciative way. When we are exposed to beauty in something that we once misunderstood, we are more willing to accept difference, and eventually celebrate it. That potential for love and appreciation for beauty in new places can only be achieved if we are willing to fully experience our world. And the depth of our experience is determined by the relationships we cultivate.
That was the driving force behind Eboo Patel’s talk and the work of the Interfaith Youth Core. By engaging in dialogue with people of different faiths and people who do not identify with any specific faith, we open ourselves up to seeing beauty in new places, and invite others to do the same. By working together towards a common social justice mission, we unite ourselves across difference, laying a foundation for uniting because of difference. Talking about what is beautiful in our traditions is not the solution to the systemic problems we observe, but it is a necessary step. Without an appreciation of beauty in the midst of struggle, we will get tired in our fight for justice; we will forget what we are fighting for. It is not a problem to see beauty in structures that are inherently flawed, but rather a necessity that unites us and energizes our faith. The fact that there is suffering does not preclude us from showing gratitude for what is present, but requires it. While Eboo Patel’s talk that night was not a rallying call for the warriors of justice, it was an invitation to pause in love, to remember to see beauty. So the next time we are lamenting the brokenness of the world, criticizing public figures, or vilifying any “them”, let’s stop. Let us say to ourselves, “It is beautiful that we can be here today.” Because it is. And that act of recognition will open our hearts to beauty in new places. It will allow us to connect to all in appreciative, instead of accusatory, ways bringing us one step closer to unity and justice.
In faith, justice, and beauty,