Audrey Hepburn and the secrets of inner beauty.
David Servan-Schreiber | October 2008 issue
Sometimes a particular phrase or image we stumble across online affects us deeply. I was moved recently by a slide show dedicated to movie star Audrey Hepburn, with quotes and pictures showing her in her dazzling youth and radiant maturity.
As a child in the Netherlands, Hepburn nearly died of hunger when the country was devastated by World War II, but was ultimately rescued by the UN refugee program. Toward the end of her life, she was asked about her beauty secrets. She replied with remarkable grace, “For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people. For a slim figure,
share your food with the hungry. For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
“People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed. Never throw out anybody. The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole, but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows.”
I’m aware I’m a long way from seeing beauty that way, and from “never throwing anybody out.” I could just let these lines drift away like an unattainable ideal. But if I allow myself to be touched by this altruistic and generous vision, I feel a warm glow in my heart. Something in me responds, bringing me closer to what’s good and right, to everything precious in my being. And I want to be more like this woman who has gone much further than I, and savoured that human generosity in all of us.
We Westerners are so obsessed by our negative emotions that even scientific research focuses on them exclusively. Of the five basic emotions—disgust, fear, anger, sorrow and happiness—only one is positive, and that one is insipid. Negative emotions are useful. Fear and anger stop us in our tracks, shifting our attention to self-defense. “Put yourself first,” they seem to shout.
On the other hand, when we’re exposed to the generosity of someone we admire or an impressive landscape or a well-kept garden, the opposite reaction occurs. Being inspired stops us in our tracks, taking us out of our dreary, habitual trains of thought. But instead of shutting us down, this opens our hearts, minds and spirits to new ways of being, receiving what the world has to give us and contributing everything we have to offer in return.
Oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates feelings of affection, is created by the brain’s reaction to emotions that make our hearts beat faster. It fills the body during breastfeeding and orgasm in relationships based on love, not just sex. It’s also produced when we’re touched by the example of someone we admire.
Doubtlessly this love hormone serves to remind us that it’s through our bonds with others that we get in touch with everything that’s good in ourselves.
David Servan-Schreiber is a psychiatry professor in France and the U.S., and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac.