The ugly in beauty

This past week, I kept stumbling into conversations about the ugly in beauty. In the most recent conversation, a friend said “Ahh, it’s kind of like that whole you can’t have light without dark thing, right?” Yes, I guess it is. Sort of.  I’ll leave you it to you to form your own opinion. I am going to share some recent conversations I have had on this theme.

I was at the Wise Fool New Mexico building in Santa Fe. Wise Fool NM is a performance group that also runs workshops, classes and plays a role in community organizing. Wise Fool NM works with the circus arts, puppetry and theater (the three often flow into one another). I’m in the very early stages of writing a book about this organization. I had a meeting with the Artistic Director (Amy) and the Managing Director (Carol) to discuss this book writing project.

At some point, Amy the Artistic Director said “If you pull something together that just goes on about how wonderful we are, you will have written a brochure. You are going to need to write about the ugly.”


We three then went onto explore ugly. By ugly, Amy meant the internal strife that is inevitable in working together. People feel hurt. People People feel angry. People feel excluded. People feel oppressed.

We experience this in organizations. We experience this in families. We experience this by living with other people. This is life.


Amy went on to give me some examples of tough relationship dynamics over the years. As I listened, to her stories of ugly, I kept thinking about beauty and being human.

I heard her request – let’s tell the story of the ugly, too. I responded by saying “Of course. We must. Only, I don’t think of it as telling the story of ugly. I think of it as telling the story of beauty. I can’t know your beauty without knowing this thing you call ugly. I call it beast. The beauty and the beast. I can’t fully know your beauty without knowing your beast.”

What she was describing reminded me of my inner journey. In recent years, I’ve started arriving at a sense of my own beauty by acknowledging and observing the beastliness that I have expressed through behaviors rooted in fear, rage, sadness, isolation, insecurity.

As I spoke about this journey to Amy and Carol, tears ran down my cheeks.

Beauty in being human. Beauty in human being.

The same night as that conversation, a friend called Carolyn came over and showed me a snippet from a performance piece she is creating. She is currently working on it, so I don’t think it is appropriate to describe in detail what she showed to me. The main point is that her character goes through an unmasking.

Again, I found myself thinking and speaking about beauty and ugly. The unmasking of Carolyn’s character reveals messiness. We talked about how we only begin to see the character’s beauty when we see her in her mess.

Beauty in being vulnerable.

The next evening, I went down to The Cell Theatre in Albuquerque. A friend and I went to see a performance by Theater Grottesco. John and Danielle ran through a history of physical theater. At the end they had a Q&A session. I asked them of their journeys with the relationship between beauty and ugliness. Danielle talked about stepping into a buffoon character. Buffoons are defined at one level by their deformity. Danielle remembers the experience of stepping in to heart of the buffoon. Stepping into the character’s heart was akin to stepping into its beauty.

Which brings me back to Wise Fool New Mexico and its story. Carol, Amy and I talked about how organizations are encouraged to show their wonderfulness and this wonderfulness is defined by success and all this bright and positive in very basic meanings of these words.

Organizations are communities. Communities are people and all life living together. People and life stories are messy, are ugly, are dirty. What I’m valuing a lot right now is the perspective that the mess, ugliness and dirt are part of the beauty. Because I can’t tell a story of the mess, the ugliness and the dirt without giving life to a spectrum of emotions that beat within the heart.

Stepping into the character’s ugliness was akin to stepping into its heart. Stepping into its heart was akin to stepping into its beauty.

What’s your experience of the ugly in beautiful?


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