Creating Our Own Worlds

mumfordSometimes I wonder how anything is actually good or beautiful. When life is a long process of dying, and so much of it is painful, little pleasures like enjoying a fine wine or buying a new Porsche seem like momentary distractions.

We create movies and novels and music and artwork, and then we argue about which ones are good and which ones aren’t. In a way, it seems pointless. What really makes a piece of art good?

Imagine a world with no humans. A far-off future where we’ve left the planet or died out. Some of our art still lies around—dusty novels on shelves, faded paintings on walls, abandoned buildings, bridges, and vehicles.

It all sits there and slowly decays, serving no purpose, inspiring no one. What’s the value of it? In a world where a novel exists unread, how can it be a good or bad novel?

We define these things by how they affect us. Something is only beautiful because someone is there to think it is beautiful. In a way, it’s all in our heads. The idea of something being beautiful or elegant is entirely dependent on our ability to assign meaning to what we observe, and create a reality within our own minds where our emotions can interact with the objective facts outside of us.

When you read a novel, you become a co-creator of an entirely new world that exists only in your head. Each person who reads it creates a slightly different world, and then decides if the novel is good or not based on how they experienced it.

This is why we disagree so much over what is and is not good art. There simply is no objective standard. The closest you can get is a standard that the majority of people subjectively agree on, but there are many nuances of art that find no majority approval, only millions of individually differing opinions.

Often we feel at odds with our fellow humans and the world itself. Reality simply won’t line up with expectations, and other people fail to see the beauty that we do. But without us here to experience and enjoy, nothing is beautiful or ugly. Beauty is a relationship between the observer and the observed.

So think of this when you get angry or hurt, or frustrated that someone doesn’t agree with you about what is good. A person’s company will never be enjoyable, their ideas will never seem worthwhile, their art will never look beautiful, until you choose to let what you observe connect with feelings of appreciation.

An attribute common to very happy people is that they find beauty everywhere. They’re constantly looking for the thing to enjoy, not the thing to hate. Perhaps subconsciously, they know that things are only beautiful and enjoyable when you treat them as if they are.

For the same reason, people who constantly criticize and hate come to believe that everything is ugly and must be torn down. And in their own reality, it is as genuinely ugly as anything. Treat someone as if they are unlovable, and you will only become more convinced that they are. Insult them, or criticize harshly, and you will only believe more strongly that they deserve it.

C. S. Lewis said: Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.

This, then, is the great secret to enjoying other people and their ideas, and the cure for hate. Anyone can become lovely when we decide to act in love.


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