Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why Snow is Pretty

A little while ago, a friend and I were looking out our respective windows as we conversed through Google Talk, and noticed the snow falling outside heralding the beginning of a minor snowstorm. My friend noted the beauty of the fresh snow on the ground prior to its being soiled and compressed by passersby and vehicular traffic. I immediately responded that such an observation depends on one's frame of reference, as to whether one sees greater beauty in pristinity or in application. Is there greater beauty in a layer of fresh, smooth, snow that casts its sleep-inducing spell upon the world in its embrace, or in a beaten and discolored layer of two-week-old snow that demands nothing more than a cursory attention? Is there greater beauty in a 5-year-old child whose countenance reflects a pure mind that has not yet been shaped by societal expectations, or in a 95-year-old man whose body and mind both reflect a lifetime of ravage? Do sefarim smell better when they are first taken off of the bookseller's shelf or when they are laid to rest in a g'nizah - to say nothing of the comparison between the bloody veneer that coats a newborn child versus the pale cleanliness of a shell that has been emptied of its spirit? None other than Shlomo HaMelech registered his opinion on this last pair, stating that the day of death is preferable to the day of birth (Koheles 7:1).

I am an engineer. My mind has been shaped through manifold problems and physical scenarios to have an admiration for the conquered and the defined, even while maintaining a sense of wonder at untouched beauty and potential. I once heard in a shiur by R' Yisroel Reisman an idea brought down in l'Or HaHalacha (by R' Shlomo Yosef Zevin, p. 304) [I found this source also referenced in a dvar Torah by R' Mordechai Willig located on TorahWeb] that sees this dichotomy as an idee fixe in the machlokos of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel all around Shas. Beis Hillel tends to focus on an object or person's absolute identity and value, while Beis Shammai focuses on what an object or person can become.

Taking some examples, Beis Shammai (Brachos 51b) holds that the proper bracha on fire at Havdalah is SheBara Ma'or HaEish, referring to the pure monochromatic flame of Creation that serves as a prototype for all future fires, while Beis Hillel holds that the proper bracha is Borei Me'orei HaEish, referring to our current heterogeneous flames, and acknowledging their value for what they are.

Beis Shammai (Shabbos 21b) holds that the neiros Chanukah decrease as the holiday progresses, as the potential chemical energy contained within the miraculous oil decreased over time, while Beis Hillel focuses on the duration of the miracle that has lasted thus far in the positive sense.

Beis Shammai (Eruvin 13b) holds that it would have been better off for man to not have been created, as when the time comes that a person's body and mind break down, he can be assured of never having achieved his fullest potential, while Beis Hillel focus on a person's positive achievements and argue that they provide sufficient justification for man's creation.

Fresh snow is a blank canvas, both in the aesthetic sense and in the deeper sense of the challenges that it produces for us. Nonetheless, there is also beauty contained within a neglected dark patch of snow on the side of a street that serves as the sole sign of man's rising up over the challenges of nature, and a fulfillment of his imperative to "fill the earth and conquer it" (Bereishis 1:28).

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At 2/25/2007 5:07 PM, Blogger Dena said...

After reading this I better understand what you were trying to say before. I think now that there are many ways to define beauty. Think of when you go on a first date, there is the first thing you notice upon just looking at the other person – outer beauty – and then what you discover after talking/being with the person for a while – inner beauty. Which is really the definition of beauty? I would argue that our society these days would define beauty by outer beauty. If beauty were truly defined by function, why then would so many companies work so hard and pour so much money into making their products appear nice. Obviously they do not believe that function is enough.
In any case, I don’t really see any function to slushy gray snow on the roads really doesn’t serve any practical function other than causing car accidents. Newly fallen snow is still prettier.

At 2/25/2007 5:14 PM, Blogger Josh M. said...

I don't think that anyone would argue that external beauty is real. I'm only pointing out another form of beauty that is often overlooked.

At 2/26/2007 8:59 PM, Blogger Ariella said...

As my husband often quotes on "Sheker hacheyn vehevel hayofi, isha yiras Hashem, he tishallal," beauty is praiseworthy in the isha yiras Hashem.
In antipation of Purim: Midrash HaGadol applies this pasuk to Vashti and Esther. The former died by her beauty, and the altter lived by her fear of Heaven.

I do have to disagree with Dena's view on first impressions, at least for shidduch dating. If one is set up, it is the person's reputation and initial phone conversation that forms the initial impression before one meets at all.

At 6/26/2007 11:40 PM, Anonymous Dan said...

You raise an interesting argument but i think there's another question that could be addressed.

You compare the mind of the child with that of an old man and question which one is more beautiful. It's intuitive to accept that the beauty of the child's mind is primarily a manifestation of the child's potential. However if we were to constrain the scope of our discussion to the realm of the reasonably possible, an argument could be made that potential is not necessarily greatest at the beginning. For a five year old child there is a certain probability of receiving a college education but there is also a probability of not receiving one. Although the possibilities may be infinite, the probabilities are somewhat evenly distributed (of being a successful engineer or a mediocre cubicle dweller, for example). For a college graduate, the possibilities are still infinite but the probabilities have been intentionally focused and therefore reflect greater potential, perhaps not in breadth but certainly in depth. If we accept this argument, we must acknowledge that the apparent beauty of a fresh mind (or snow, or anything else) lies somewhere other than raw potential.

This leaves us with, as you said, pristinity, in this case a manifestation of the utter lack of wasted potential. I agree that there is perhaps greater beauty in a mind that has realized its potential, but your example specifies a mind that has been "ravaged" by a lifetime. Is the beauty of the experienced mind purely a function of its experience or is it at least in part the fulfillment of some measure of its potential? That is to say, is this mind beautiful even if its potential had been wasted, simply because it had been around for 95 years?

A relationship is an excellent example. While they're fresh there is a notion of endless possibility, though it's important to consider this in the negative. It's not so much that all the doors are open as it is that none of them have been closed. Its beauty is revealed as it matures and its potential is realized (or not, for good or for bad). As doors are either shut or left open, a more certain (and possibly greater) expectation can be formed.

I propose that the beauty of an experienced mind is a function of the relationship between its realized potential and unrealized potential. By this reasoning, experience can manifest as either beauty or tragedy, with considerable room for subjectivity.

I suppose the question is, does a relationship between brothers possess inherent beauty because of its lifelong duration or can it be marred by an awareness of unfulfilled potential?

At 6/27/2007 3:12 PM, Blogger Josh M. said...

By definition, potential is a maximal measurement, not a probabilistic one. It is true that a college graduate may have a greater probability of reaching a given goal, but the equivalent child has the possibility of achieving more, much as a car with a full tank of gas has the potential to travel further than a car which is already some distance down the highway, and has already wasted a portion of its fuel in traffic and on wrong turns.

I agree with you that the beauty of a mind that has been used is not merely based on its experience, but rather based on its having achieved a good portion of its potential. What is its potential, though? It is a quantity that cannot be measured. One can look at the face of the old and view what could possibly have been, but one does not know the original probability of success for this possibility. Even if one were somehow able to calculate this, there is little to be gained psychologically from focusing on wasted potential rather than on what one actually has in hand, whether little or much. Practically, then, one should always see experience as a positive thing, of whatever magnitude.

However, I should note that one good result of a potentiocentric outlook is the generation of a constant drive to actualize one's potential in the present. If one focuses too much on what's immediately in front of one's face, it is easy to fall into complacency, and thereby willingly forfeit the bulk of one's potential.

Your conclusion summarizes the issues well. One must rejoice over both realized potential and over unrealized potential that still exists, while at the same time possessing the determination to not allow unrealized potential to remain so. Experience can indeed be viewed either positively or negatively, and I believe that the notion of experience that does not bring with it a parallel actualization of potential is what many people find most frightening about the advent of old age and the gradual breakdown of body and mind, which hastens the loss of potential.

A brotherly relationship does, indeed, have a certain inherent beauty to it. It can certainly be marred like any other force, though, if the potential is left unactualized. Let us commit, then, to utilizing unfulfilled potential as an engine for motivating us to work harder on its actualization.


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