Gauguin’s Great Canvas
Are we here in order to achieve things? Or are we here in order to learn?
One of the most moving pieces of art I have ever seen is the enormous three part canvas painted by Gauguin, in Tahiti, on which he wrote the words ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ These questions have now become the painting’s official title. The figures on the canvas don’t seem especially to be contemplating these questions as they set about their various tasks. Perhaps that is the whole point. We live, we work, we pray (or we don’t pray) we sit, we dream, just as the figures on the canvas are doing and these questions remain part of who we are. The questions are not there to make us panic and scramble for answers. None of the figures Gauguin painted seems desperate.
The questions are worth asking, though. Of course, questions like these may just be constructs that we human beings make for ourselves. There may be no important questions to ask, let alone answer. We have no concrete evidence to say that it’s important for us even to address such ideas. Yet somehow we feel it to be important, even in a paradise like Tahiti. We seem to return to this idea that we do have a purpose and a goal. If this is true, then we must attempt to think about our lives in those terms and find an answer that works for us. We seem to need to make meaning in our lives. Perhaps this sounds like a vain pastime, so I’d point out merely that those who fail to find meaning in their lives are those who are most heavily represented in the ranks of the chronically depressed, the substance abusers, the incarcerated, and the suicidal.
Gauguin felt these questions keenly, and knew he’d created something unusual in this extraordinary three-part, twelve foot wide painting he thought of as his ‘dream’. He felt the canvas was the greatest thing he’d done, ‘a philosophical work…comparable to the Gospels’ as he wrote. Later the same year he tried to kill himself, not out of despair but because he was convinced he had completed his life’s work.
We may be here on earth for many reasons – to be successful; to be happy; to be good or virtuous; to create a beautiful painting. The list could go on forever. Some answers may seem more worthy than others. I personally find it hard to believe that humans are alive simply in order to gather dollar bills for their own pleasure, for example, or to be in control of cruel and repressive governments, or to use the media to manipulate unsuspecting populations into a state of misery. Most people would agree that these do not seem to be worthy goals for a career, let alone a lifetime, yet they don’t seem to have diminished in popularity.
If we are on earth to ask questions, if we are here in order to learn from the experience of being human, then we have to ask what it is we are supposed to be learning.
Perhaps a possible answer lies in what we can witness whenever we see a new-born and its mother. For when we see them, whether it be in an under-funded hospital in Mumbai or enshrined as a Madonna and Child at the Vatican, we are aware of just one thing: the huge and incomprehensible strength of human love. The mother does not see only the trials ahead for her child or herself, although she may be aware that the world is cruel. But no matter how difficult the mother’s situation she will love her child – even if she’s forced to give it up for adoption later. That primary loving attachment is observable anywhere. The child itself craves love, if only in order to survive. Yet the desire to have a loving connection to others is very strong throughout our lives. Could it be that the very first lessons we learn as infants, the lessons of attachment, acceptance, and love, are in fact the ones we need most to explore in the rest of our lives?
So how important is that early love? Psychology and medical science have shown us that children who do not feel loved do not thrive. They tend to be under weight, under confident, and less well socially adjusted. Their intelligence levels may also be affected. These are all statistically measurable. But there is more to consider. If we are given a firm grounding in love and in being cared for as infants we develop the confidence to explore our world. In fact love tends to allow us to grow our courage. And so we look around and learn about how things work first within the safety of the family, then in the wider context of the community, and eventually in the seemingly endless confusions of the world. An ever-expanding series of possibilities awaits us as we grow.
We learn in the family to love those who are sometimes very different from ourselves, as well as how to love those who are just like us. In grade school we learn we have to respect everyone, which is another form of love, even if those people are sometimes our rivals and even our enemies. And those challenges don’t end in the classroom. When we leave school we find a bewildering world in which everyone has at least to try and get along, and where we look for a loving partner with whom to build our lives. We’ll look for friends and for lovers fully aware that some people out there want to hurt us. We may also find ourselves engaging in the search for spiritual enlightenment or a closer communion with God. Some versions of God seem to lead towards destruction and anger. Others are more obviously loving. How will we choose? And how will we deal with those people whose belief systems are repugnant to us?
It seems as though this marvelous world of ours could be a vast constantly-developing opportunity for us to find out how to love each other – even under the most trying of circumstances. If we fail to love each other, accept each other, and respect differences we can be sure that peace will never occur, and at the heart of this is the need to accept ourselves.
If this is so then we are all, whether we like it or not, invited on this journey of exploration to find out about love.
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