Why Beauty Makes Me Cry

Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-67) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-67) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

Breughel and tears

I was reminded of Breughel’s Massacre of the Innocents, today. My reason for thinking about that painting was curiosity of a personal nature. When I first laid eyes on it, I had to fight back the tears, so powerful was my emotional response to it (and I didn’t even like Breughel’s work, up until that moment!). This wasn’t an isolated incident. I sometimes find myself talking about something I consider to be an example of brilliance and I’ll become inexplicably emotional. It’s never made sense to me why this happens. Why, when faced with instances of great beauty, creativity, genius or some other mastery, I seem to disintegrate. There’s nothing more or less special about me than any of my peers, and yet they don’t fall apart when they hear Dvorak’s 8th!

Mother issues

Unsurprisingly, the origin lies in my childhood. I was an “accident”, the result of bad planning—I used to think of it as “a moment of passion”. After not being aborted, I was raised by a mother who didn’t really need me around. I was left in my grandmother’s care, whilst she pursued her career. But, as any adult child of a dysfunctional family will tell you, children can tell when they are not wanted, when they are not celebrated, when they are an inconvenient burden; and the effects of these circumstances are devastating. This was certainly my experience. Growing up, I had a sense of not being all that important to the big people, least of all my mother. I craved her love, care and affection. But, she was incapable of loving me. (There were reasons for this inability, which I now understand intellectually, but, of course, to my younger self, none of that mattered.)

The “good boy” game

As a result, I had to find ways of attracting the love I needed. I became a “good boy”: I never expressed feelings or needs and I always did what I was told. When I was well-behaved, I was praised and approved of, and when (on the rare occasion) I was ill-behaved, I was punished and disapproved of. My emotional security and my value became wholly dependent on my performance, not on anything inherently lovable within me. It left me feeling emotionally abandoned and unwanted. The “good boy” game was working, but a roller coaster of insecurity was the inevitable outcome. What I needed was unconditional love, love independent of what I did or didn’t do. And since I couldn’t make my parents love me, I needed a new plan. The game was up. I needed a love substitute.

The substitute

I found this in beauty. At first, it was the superficial beauty admired by a child: decorative items in the house, flowers in the garden, toys, favourite stories, songs, thoughts—tangible and intangible things I could collect. But, as I grew older, I began to see the beauty of creative genius in the arts, design, engineering, philosophy, science, and so forth. My reverence for what I collectively call Beauty became absolute. I began to see it as a constant: it wasn’t reactive, it didn’t become less beautiful, it was consistent and reliable, a kind of refuge from the loveless reality I experienced as a youngster.

An imaginary friend

The people in my world were insensitive, dismissive and unappreciative. They made me feel insignificant and worthless. All I could do to survive was to find ways to protect myself. But, in the presence of beauty, I could lower my defenses. I could drop the “good boy” act and just be. Admiring beautiful things was a way of vicariously giving myself the love, approval and worth I so desperately sought. It was twisted, but it became a genuine replacement for the conditional love and approval I was generating in my parents. Beauty became my imaginary friend, a source of joy with every new creative or intellectual discovery. It didn’t disapprove, ridicule or disappoint. It was only its wonderful self, admired by all who loved its form.

I cry because I’m vulnerable

And so, when I come face to face with something Beautiful—something excellent, pure and masterful—that unloved, wounded part of my soul is exposed. It’s no wonder I become a defenseless little boy who just wants to break down in tears. Beauty has protected, soothed and healed me, all my life. Without it, I don’t see how I could have survived—I owe it my life and sanity. I become emotional because for that brief moment, in the presence of something great, all my defenses are down. When I was a boy, my first exposure to true creativity was through music. The works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky exposed me to genius I couldn’t even begin to understand, but it inspired me to make music, to try to create something beautiful, myself. Today, the very process of making music restores me and delivers me. May the music I make also bring beauty into the lives of others.


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