Paris, 1962. An Italian restaurant. Audrey Hepburn and director Stanley Donen are having dinner with Cary Grant to talk about teaming up on the film Charade. Hepburn— the icon of grace, class, and elegance—is so nervous about meeting Grant that she knocks a bottle of wine into his lap.
People around them start buzzing. Think of the mess!
To everyone’s relief, Grant takes it lightly. He laughs off the accident and sits through dinner in wet wool as if nothing had happened. To further comfort the mortified Hepburn, the next day he sends her a box of caviar and a warm note.
Charade comes out a year later, and it’s a big success. The chemistry between its two stars draws raves. Few realize that the spark had been ignited months earlier, when a cold, wet shock was met with grace.
Grace is being at ease with the world, even when life tosses wine down your pants.
Grace is rather like wine, actually, or—better yet—a cocktail. Not the snorter of desperation, mind you, but the balanced, well-made palliative, a jigger of this and a twist of that, served up for pure delectation. Whether you perceive grace in a moment of startling compassion, in Roger Federer’s miraculous forehand, or even in the minute-by-minute harmony of line cooks during the dinner rush, witnessing it pleases the senses, brightens the mood, and inspires a feeling of ease.
I’ll go so far as to say that once grace enters the room, our cold, hard, tottering world becomes a better place in which to live.
The ancients would agree. The Greeks gave us the original Three Graces, the Charites, progeny of the world’s coolest parents, by some accounts. Mom was Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty; Dad was Dionysus, god of wine and Wallbangers. The Charites were the personifications of beauty, festivity, and joy, celebrated by Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and other poets. The Romans renamed them the Gratiae, from which we get the word grace. Gifted with charm, high spirits, and the desire to please, these divine young ladies had the simple task of enhancing the enjoyment of life. Of bringing about ease.
Who couldn’t use more of that?
And yet, though grace seems like it should be natural, when we look around us—and at ourselves—we tend to see the jarring angles, the glitches, the raw edges. The jerks.
But grace is within the reach of all of us. Neuroscientists and movement specialists agree that it is within the capabilities of everyone, no matter one’s condition or abilities. It is made up of a poised and relaxed body, smooth and efficient motion, attentiveness, compassion. There is a contented silence to grace; it avoids what is loud and intrusive, and what offends the eye.
We need a return to grace. We are all fighting hard battles, and we need all the help we can get. Yet we’ve lost sight of grace, which for so long was an essential, treasured quality, and which ought to be at the heart of how we interact, how we inhabit our bodies and the world around us. Life in the twenty-first century is often rushed, clumsy, and frustrating, and it is this way because of what we do to one another, and to ourselves. We’re overloaded at work. We’re overwhelmed at home. We’re distracted and we let the door slam on the person behind us, we trip over curbs as we’re texting, we’re running late, we fail to notice. Our bent postures show us the unfeeling habits we’ve fallen into—sedentary, weighed down, collapsed over the laptop. We’ve given in to gravity. We’ve forgotten how to move through life with grace.
Grace was once a subject for philosophers, poets, artists, and essayists, but you have to dig into French scholarship of nearly a century ago to find the last time it was explored in depth. In 1933, Raymond Bayer published a monumental examination, the two-volume L’esthétique de la grâce: introduction à l’étude des équilibres de structure (The Aesthetic of Grace: Introduction to the Study of Structural Equilibrium), which dissected grace as methodically as a chef fillets a pike. In twelve hundred pages he analyzed the nature of grace, compiled the history of philosophical theories of grace as a category of aesthetics, used graphs and charts to document the arc of spring and rebound in rubber balls and a sprinter’s stride.
It is an astonishing work, and very French. Bayer writes about the “secret” grace of animals, which no perfected machine will ever duplicate, and of the royauté that women share with felines in matters of movement. This is an intriguing observation; would Bayer, if he were alive, make it today? I doubt it. When was the last time you saw someone on the street with a truly mesmerizing way of moving? Grace has faded as a living aspect of our daily lives since the 1930s. It is ripe for rediscovery.
Excerpted from The Art of Grace by Sarah L. Kaufman. Copyright © 2015 Sarah L. Kaufman.