No beauty without pain

Drew, Matt and Jeff in St. Pierre, Martinique, June 1998

Drew, Matt and Jeff in St. Pierre, Martinique, June 1998

“If we’re lucky we have a long time to consider what beauty means. One thing I know: there is no beauty without pain. Beauty flourishes on sorrow. It’s enriched by the knowledge that life is fleeting, sometimes cruel, and often ends without resolution.”
Diane Keaton

One of my favorite spots in the Caribbean is the beautiful island of Martinique.  Perhaps it’s the influence of that French aesthetic savoir faire that makes it such an attractive place, but what I remember most about the island is our visit to the volcanic ruins of St. Pierre.

Once the largest town on the island, St. Pierre was called “the Paris of the Caribbean” before its sudden destruction from the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902.  Though there had been warning signals, the nearly 30,000 people who died that day assumed they would have time to escape if lava flows began.

No one anticipated the pyroclastic juggernaut that traveled, according to estimates, 420 miles per hour to engulf the entire town in less than a minute.  The only person in the heart of the city who survived was a felon imprisoned in an underground cell.  Hundreds on the fringes of the town, and even passengers in ships docked nearby, fell prey to the encompassing disaster.

When we visited St. Pierre less than 100 years later to view the ruins, it was a gorgeous place, hauntingly serene and peaceful.  The mountain in the distance appeared breathtakingly scenic and benign.  Even the charred ruins of the town had a singular appeal, with fresh green plants and vines growing atop many of the remaining walls and structures.

How unspeakably horrifying the infernal destruction must have been.  How beautiful that spot is today, with the ruins preserved as an ongoing memorial of those who perished, and the lush Caribbean foliage and mountain providing a stunning backdrop for a tragic story.

I agree with Keaton; beauty is never without pain, and in fact, often comes as a direct result of some sort of suffering. It’s a paradox never adequately explained by human logic, which is one reason I believe the understanding of it lies hidden in a divine mystery we’re not fully capable of comprehending.  We are, however, capable of treasuring the gifts that come out of tragedy, even as we acknowledge and commemorate those who were injured or lost.

There are some who find no consolation in such thoughts, and some who can see beauty in pain only when time heals some measure of the sorrow.  Yet often, even bitterness can be redeemed as it is transformed into compassion and help for others who face such trials.  When we are called to observe or endure suffering, may we find the means to act in love toward those who need us, becoming part of a slowly emerging landscape of survival, blessing and grace.

One year ago today:

Dear earth


  1. Julia, thank you for this writing. My whole life, I knew “beauty is painful.” I knew this, because my mother would tell me this, as I sat in the kitchen while she combed, pulled, coaxed and wrapped my hair into rag curls.
    My whole life, I’ve not understood the real meaning and deeper truth of this saying. Thank you. I have a new appreciation for beauty today, and I really needed it.
    Blessings on your day!

    • Susan, I too was a kid who couldn’t stand getting my hair washed or styled. It may have been partly because of my mother’s impatience and probable tendency to be less gentle than I wished, but that aversion to dealing with my hair persists to this day. That’s why I leave it long and just put it back or up 90% of the time. My sister used to say “a little pain for beauty” and I would think “not for me, pal.” 😀 But you are right, that hair business is just a symbol for the overall truth that pain is inescapable, and often, it truly does yield rich results over time. If only we could simply be born with wisdom that doesn’t have to come from hard experience! Maybe that’s what heaven is for – with no bad hair, either! Hope you have a great holiday weekend!

  2. Julia, Amen to your last paragraph.
    When one suffers well, without prolonged bitterness-through acceptance, it can be redemptive. Not solely for the one who suffers, but for whom the sufferer, offers his painful endurance.
    I envy women for one obvious God-given advantage not granted to men. The opportunity to suffer the pain in delivery, only to be rewarded by the beauty born of that suffering.

    • Alan, so many amazing people have left us a legacy of how to endure suffering or deprivation, without falling prey to the malignant bitterness that would be all too understandable. Many years ago when I lost a friend after her courageous battle against cancer, my brother Eric told me that she could bless me in her death as she had in her life and I asked him how that could possibly be. He said “whenever you face something similar, you will not only be true to God; you will be true to her too.” WOW, I have thought of that, and of her, so often since Jeff was diagnosed. I don’t think suffering is always “for a reason” as some say, but I do think we can take the sorrow and turn it to good use if it brings wisdom and compassion. By the way – one childbirth ordeal would be enough to convince you that you need not envy women 😀 but as a mother, I have learned that the pain of childbirth is just the beginning of many years of bittersweet love, joy mixed with sorrow again and again. as we may be called to watch our children suffer, make mistakes, feel loneliness, frustration, sadness and anger (often at us) and in short, learn that being human is a mixed experience. In this way, fathers who are loving and present in their children’s lives come to understand fully what mothers learn in pregnancy and childbirth: no beauty without pain.

      • Julia,
        Your brother is quite correct. And suffering is never wasted if it inspires another to a better life.
        Recently a young man graduated from high school, and had a unique request, He asked that his brother be allowed to accompany him as he recived his diploma. His reason was that his brother, who was mentally challenged since birth, had so inspired him, that he worked all the more harder, to be successful in his studies. And that it was his brother’s achievement, as much it was his.
        So to a standing ovation from those in attendance, he received his diploma with his brother. Both walked onto the stage, both in graduation gown and cap. The graduate, with his arm around his brother’s shoulder, as his brother cradled the diloma in his arms.

        • Alan, that is such a beautiful story! Though our older son did not do this same thing, anyone who knows him well can imagine him doing it. And as Jeff and I have seen firsthand, the graduating brother’s assertions are quite true.That young man’s brother was a large part of who he became. Matt has been very influential all three of our lives, but none more so than his brother, who is just 16 months older than him. I worry sometimes that Drew tried a bit TOO hard, and felt the need to be TOO perfect, due to some compensatory impulse. I guess that would have been natural. But all in all, I can’t imagine what either Matt or Drew might have been like without each other through childhood. Siblings can be one of the greatest gifts in our lives. Thanks again for sharing a wonderful story!

  3. Julia – Beautifully expressed – many thanks xoxo

    • Thank you Pauline! I’m so happy you liked it. Hope you, Siddie, Orlando and all your family have a great weekend (it’s already started for us in the USA as tomorrow is our country’s Birthday holiday).

  4. Sheila

    Julia, you had my attention with the beautiful photo and then the Diane Keaton quote was the perfect accompaniment. This was simply one of your best blogs ever, to me. 🙂

    • Wow, thank you Sheila, that is quite a compliment! Because I know you have read every one of them – thank you my friend, for being here with me every day.

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