Why the chaos of life in the 21st century means we need to return to grace

Grace is made up of a poised and relaxed body, smooth and efficient motion, attentiveness, compassion

Sarah L. Kaufman
Sunday 22 November 2015 17:08 GMT
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn – in ‘Charade’ – were the embodiment of mental, physical and emotional harmony
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn – in ‘Charade’ – were the embodiment of mental, physical and emotional harmony

Paris, 1962. 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 realise 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: a jigger of this and a twist of that, served up for pure delectation. And whether you perceive it in a moment of startling compassion, in Roger Federer’s miraculous forehand, or even in the 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 Greeks gave us the original Three Graces, the Charites

The ancients would agree. The Greeks gave us the original Three Graces, the Charites, who were the personifications of beauty, festivity and joy. The Romans renamed them the Gratiae, from which we get our “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, intrusive or offends the eye – and we need a return to it. Life in the 21st century is often rushed, clumsy and frustrating and it is like this because of what we do to one another – and to ourselves. We’re overloaded at work and at home. We’re distracted and we let the door slam on the person behind us. We trip over kerbs as we’re texting. 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, his two-volume The Aesthetic of Grace, which dissected it as methodically as a chef fillets a pike. He writes about the “secret” grace of animals, which no machine will ever duplicate, and of the royauté that women share with felines in matters of movement. But when was the last time you saw someone on the street with a truly mesmerising way of moving? Grace has faded as a living aspect of our daily lives. It is ripe for rediscovery.

And in this endeavour, there is no greater guide than Cary Grant. Take The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which he takes on the familiar role of the ex-husband still in love with his former wife (played by Katharine Hepburn) and hoping to scuttle her marriage to another man. Mindful of appearances as he reconnects with Hepburn’s high-society family, Grant tries to hide his mixed-up feelings. Yet his body tells us something different. He speaks to Hepburn with a clipped indifference, but his torso softens. In the scene in which he comes to her house just before her marriage, Grant shows how much he wants to reclaim her with a stride that eats up the space between them. What his lips can’t say, his body reveals: he stands close, inclining towards her, yielding in the middle like a surrendering wolf flashing its underbelly. He does this all so easily, so effortlessly, that we don’t consciously think about it as a physical performance like a dance, though in fact it is.

Grace doesn’t make a fuss about itself, but subtly warms and transforms the atmosphere. In essence, it is the transference of well-being from one who is calm and comfortable to those around him. The graceful person is an image of our ideal selves, the embodiment of the dream we have of existing easily in the world. This is why we are so moved by graceful people, who carry themselves with ease and unselfconsciousness, who seem at peace. Life – regular life, the way you and I live it – is full of effort and awkwardness, those breathless dashes for the bus or the train, the times we wish we hadn’t opened our big mouths. But then there is an actor such as Greta Garbo – almost floating along, no sharp edges, all chiffon and softness and that sense that she is attuned to some deep vibrations of the universe.

Graceful actions sound a note of pleasure in us, an intoxicating buzz we sense in our bones, because they offer an image of that most desirable state of affairs: effortless mastery – of the situation and our own bodies, behaviour and emotions. We may feel we’re stumbling and huffing our way along, but a glimpse of graceful movement and manner inspires us with the dream of perfect harmony.

Greta Garbo gave the impression of being attuned to deep vibrations of the universe (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Re-enter Cary Grant, who Alfred Hitchcock said was “the only actor I have ever loved in my whole life”. Since Hitchcock allegedly regarded actors as animated props, this may be one reason Grant stood out to him. The former acrobat and vaudevillian was never purely decorative. He could launch himself into back flips (Holiday) and clamber along rooftops (To Catch a Thief). He hauled Katharine Hepburn to the top of a dinosaur skeleton (Bringing Up Baby) and pulled Eva Marie Saint up Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest). One handed. Twice.

Even more interesting is what Grant did with the common stock of human movement. He knew how to hold the eye and deepen a scene’s emotional tone with a precisely formed and timed gesture, one that for anyone else would be ordinary – drumming his fingers on the steering wheel or shrugging a shoulder at just the right moment. Walking across a room, rising from a chair, leaning on a mantelpiece – Grant infused routine actions with a theatrical sense of purpose and an artist’s subtlety, so that dramatic tension exists alongside playful, natural ease. And both the tension and the ease came from his full-body, three-dimensional responsiveness to others.

Yet Grant’s screen performances aren’t the only reason he is a model of grace. He also possessed the inner dimension, what the ancient Greeks referred to as kalokagathia: beauty and nobility of the soul. Tales of his gentlemanly qualities abound. Like all of us, he had his struggles and weaknesses – his included four divorces – but while he was unlucky in love, he managed his marital difficulties discreetly. And if his formality and famed perfectionism didn’t make him easy to live with, they were useful professional qualities. When a co-star’s delivery was slightly off, Grant would flub his lines, too, so the whole scene would have to be re-shot, allowing the other actor to save face while also getting a do-over.

George Washington, who was schooled in civility (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Well, it’s easy enough to be kind when the stakes aren’t terribly high. But Grant was kind when it wasn’t easy. Ingrid Bergman credited him as the first – and one of the few – to stand up for her when her love affair with director Roberto Rossellini ignited an international scandal and, in an atmosphere of sanctimoniousness in excelsis, she was denounced from Hollywood to the Senate floor. At around the same time, when hardly anyone in Hollywood dared to protest the McCarthy-era blacklisting, Grant had the grace to express his support publicly for Charlie Chaplin – English-born like him – whose visa had been revoked in the anti-communist furore. But then, Grant had a habit of making graceful gestures. In 1940, when America had not yet joined the war against the Nazis, he donated his entire fee from The Philadelphia Story to the British war effort.

Grace can lie in a smooth, well-coordinated motion, or in a humble and tolerant attitude. More often than not, the two go hand in hand. The people who move well tend to be folks you want to be around. Their ease comes from being comfortable in their own skins, and that’s what we’re drawn to – what the smooth physicality conveys about a person’s nature. Grace has nothing to do with looks or sophistication, and everything to do with compassion and courage – for instance, to step forward with a warm welcome for someone who has been shunned. I find it is the folks who are humble, unpretentious and direct who are the most graceful.

Grace has powerful roots that reach back thousands, even millions, of years. As mammals, our brains evolved to perceive the subtlest movements, and an appreciation of smoothness took up early residence in our neurons. We depended on smooth, connected and harmonious motion to survive in the treetops, swinging and climbing with a range of motion that was – and still is – extraordinary among animals. Acrobatic agility is our birthright. As is the yearning for ease of living, for an untroubled wholeness with the world. And they are inextricably bound up with that often-awkward effort to live together that we call civilisation.

Audrey Hepburn – the icon of grace, class and elegance

Allow me to introduce a man named Ptah-hotep, an adviser to a pharaoh who lived about 4,500 years ago in Egypt and left behind the world’s oldest known book, the ur-text of human civilisation. “Kindness is a man’s memorial,” he wrote. In the eyes of posterity, “the mild has a greater claim than the harsh”. Also: “If thou be powerful, make thyself to be honoured for knowledge and for gentleness.” In other words: Get out of your head and pay attention. Think of the other guy.

As time rolls forward, what humanity holds dear does not change much. The kind of social sensitivity the Egyptian vizier advocated was taken up in ancient Athens, in Renaissance Italy and in colonial Virginia where, as an exercise at school, George Washington copied out his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation in large, looping script.

“Be not froward,” commands Washington’s Rule 66, using a wonderful, old word for wilfully obstinate, “but friendly and Courteous.”

Such rules express an ideal vision of how to be in the world, how to live with ease, avoiding friction. As far back as there are records, humanity has longed for this. And herein lies the attraction of grace. It represents a kind of completeness, bringing all one’s noblest desires and actions into harmony.

We’re living in what I call the grace gap. We hurry through our days, with our eyes and ears plugged into devices, our minds far away, not noticing the physical or emotional impression we make on others. In recent years, researchers have seen a sharp drop in empathy and a corresponding rise in narcissism among young adults. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts of 30 years ago, with the numbers dropping the most since the millennium. Another set of experiments found that upper-class folks suffer “empathy deficits”. The richer the participants, the less able they were to read the emotions of others. Think what that means for their ability to transcend a pressing drama and consider the big-picture effect of their actions.

We tend to associate grace with the high-class realms of life. And there is a certain cool, polished quality to that sort, like the surface of a pearl. But ornamental grace doesn’t illuminate much that’s useful to the rest of us. Thus the great Italian painter Caravaggio insisted on bringing his subjects down to earth: his dynamic, realistic 17th-century saints were unshaven, with dirty feet. His Madonnas were modelled on prostitutes he knew, and very likely loved. They had grace with grit: hard-won grace that’s fleshly and a little flawed and stems from an open embrace of life. The kind one might discover at Motown tours in the civil rights era or on the vaudeville circuit, or today among the fearless stagehands hanging lights for a rock concert.

These arenas – as well as science – offer hope to the klutzes among us. Grace is wonderfully democratic. With practice, it’s a skill we can all develop. Yet there is something hidden about grace; it’s often overlooked, or vaguely felt but difficult to identify. “The last and noblest part of beauty is grace,” declared the 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, “which the author thinks undefinable.” But defining things is pretty much what philosophers do, so why did Reid stop short in the face of grace? Me, I want to locate it and hold it up for examination – because being aware of grace in others allows us to feel some of their ease ourselves and to enjoy a heightened vitality as we move in harmony, even if only in our imaginations.

That alone can do wonders. We are natural imitators and, the more we look at grace, the more we can become graceful, too. The next step is practice: cultivate ease of movement, self-control and warmth, and the Garbo walk may well follow. The third step is to learn to face the world willingly (or at least without obvious panic) and with regard for those around you. Real grace doesn’t exist without a test. It is most apparent when we have fallen, when we are bare. It is revealed in the simple act of paying attention, when a subtle change, a bit of hidden choreography or an unexpected show of understanding suddenly becomes a moment of truth. We just have to look.

Or rather, let’s go full bore and say: behold. “Behold”, when you break it down to its roots, means “hold thoroughly”. You not only see something but hold it, feel it against your body; you drink it in, inhale it as you would a baby’s buttery-warm head of hair. A graceful act is a sensory rush. Let us behold, then, the grace and the grace-full around us.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Art of Grace’ by Sarah L Kaufman (WW Norton, £16.99), published on 1 December

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