Brain Pickings

Dostoyevsky on Why There Are No Bad People

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“A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.”

Legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) is best known as one of literary history’s titans, but he was also a brilliant entrepreneur and pioneer of self-publishing. Under the auspices of his enterprising wife Anna, Dostoyevsky overcame his ruinous gambling addiction to become Russia’s first self-published author. But it was the release of A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same collection of his nonfiction and fiction writings that gave us Dostoyevsky’s memorable recollection of how he discovered the meaning of life in a dream — that turned him into a national brand.

In February of 1876, reflecting on the unanimous acclaim with which the first volume of the journal had been received, 55-year-old Dostoyevsky contemplates the paradox of people-pleasing and writes in the very diary whose success he is pondering:

I am interested only in the question: is it, or is it not, good that I have pleased everybody?

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

From this, under the heading “On the Subject That We All Are Good Fellows,” he springboards into an exquisite discussion of our deepest goodness, emanating a deep faith in the human spirit and a conviction that we are inherently good despite the badness we sometimes put on like an ill-fitting suit to impress by imitating those we mistake for impressive. A century before Isaac Asimov’s memorable invitation to optimism over cynicism about the human spirit, Dostoyevsky writes:

We are all good fellows — except the bad ones, of course. Yet, I shall observe in passing that among us, perhaps, there are no bad people at all — maybe, only wretched ones. But we have not grown up to be bad. Don’t scoff at me, but consider: we have reached the point in the past where, because of the absence of bad people of our own (I repeat: despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches), we used to be ready, for instance, to value very highly various bad little fellows appearing among our literary characters, mostly borrowed from foreign sources. Not only did we value them, but we slavishly sought to imitate them in real life; we used to copy them, and in this respect we were ready to jump out of our skins.

While much of Dostoyevsky’s discussion of such misplaced imitation pertains to that specific point in Russia’s cultural history, embedded in it is a broader reminder that, to borrow Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorable words, “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” In a remark particularly poignant in the context of Russia’s troubled present-day civic climate, Dostoyevsky considers the allure of imitating such villains:

We used to value and respect these evil people … solely due to the fact that they appeared as men of solid hate in contradiction to us Russians, who, as is well known, are people of very fragile hate, and this trait of ours we have always particularly despised. Russians are unable to hate long and seriously, and not only men but even vices — the darkness of ignorance, despotism, obscurantism and all the rest of these retrograde things. At the very first opportunity we are quick and eager to make peace… Please consider: why should we be hating each other? For evil deeds? — But this is a very slippery, most ticklish and most unjust theme — in a word, a double-edged one… Fighting is fighting, but love is love… We are fighting primarily and solely because now it is no longer a time for theories, for journalistic skirmishes, but the time for work and practical decisions.

Noting that the Russian people must recover from “two centuries of lack of habit of work,” he articulates the more universal and rather lamentable human tendency to deflect insecurity by lashing out:

The more incompetent one feels, the more eager he is to fight.

And yet Dostoyevsky approaches the problem with deep compassion rather than harsh judgment:

What, I may ask you, is there bad about it? — Only, that this is touching — and nothing more. Look at children: they fight precisely at the age when they have not yet learned to express their thoughts — exactly as well. Well, in this there is absolutely nothing discouraging; on the contrary, this merely proves to a certain extent our freshness and, so to speak, our virginity.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies.' Click image for more.

He observes how this tendency plays out in his own craft — something undoubtedly amplified today, when criticism is not only professionalized but also sensationalized for profit by the commercial media industrial complex:

In literature, because of the absence of ideas, people scold each other, using all invectives at once; this is an impossible and naïve method observed only among primitive peoples; but, God knows, even in this there is something almost touching: exactly that inexperience, that childish incompetence even in scolding in a proper manner.

But underneath such defensive insecurity and cynicism, Dostoyevsky argues, lies a deeper, most earnest yearning for goodness:

I am by no means jesting; I am not jeering: among us there is a widespread, honest and serene expectation of good (this is so, no matter what one might say to the contrary); a longing for common work and common good, and this — ahead of any egoism; this is a most naïve longing, full of faith devoid of any exclusive or caste tinge, and even if it does appear in paltry and rare manifestations, it comes as something unnoticeable, which is despised by everybody… And why should we be looking for “solid hate”? — The honesty and sincerity of our society not only cannot be doubted, but they even spring up into one’s eyes. Look attentively and you will see that … first comes faith in an idea, in an ideal, while earthly goods come after.

It is our responsibility as human beings, Dostoyevsky suggests, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults:

A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.

He urges that such compassion be granted to the Russian people, but in his words there is to be found an enduring case for all disenfranchised groups and harshly judged communities:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy. Besides, the people are not composed of scoundrels only; there are also genuine saints — and what saints! They themselves are radiant and they illuminate the path for all of us!

More than a century before modern psychology exposed the creative mental gymnastics of how we rationalize our bad deeds, Dostoyevsky speaks to the perils of such rationalization:

Somehow, I am blindly convinced that there is no such villain or scoundrel among the Russian people who wouldn’t admit that he is villainous and abominable, whereas, among others, it does happen sometimes that a person commits a villainy and praises himself for it, elevating his villainy to the level of a principle, and claiming that l’ordre and the light of civilization are precisely expressed in that abomination; the unfortunate one ends by believing this sincerely, blindly and honestly.

With the wry caveat that he is “speaking only about serious and sincere people,” Dostoyevsky reiterates his appeal at the heart of his creed:

Judge [people] not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.

All of A Writer’s Diary is a trove of Dostoyevsky’s great sensitivity to the human experience and his enduring wisdom on literature and life. Complement it with Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known letters on why we hurt each other and Kierkegaard on why haters hate.

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How to Let Your Life Speak, Discern Your Purpose, and Define Your Own Success

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What it takes to learn to listen to the timid wild animal that is the soul.

“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney,” young Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter as he floundered to find his purpose. For the century and a half since, and undoubtedly the many centuries before, the question of how to kindle that soul-warming fire by finding one’s purpose and making a living out of meaningful work has continued to frustrate not only the young, not only aspiring artists, but people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life. How to navigate that existential maze with grace is what Parker J. Palmer — founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and a man of great insight into the elusive art of inner wholeness — explores with compassionate warmth and wisdom in his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (public library | IndieBound).

In his own youth, Palmer had come to know intimately the soul-splitting rift between being good at one’s work and being fulfilled in one’s purpose. As an aspiring “ad man” in the Mad Men era, lured by “the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood” — something supplanted today, perhaps, by the startup-lifestyle fetishism afflicting many young people — he awoke one day to a distinct and chilling realization:

The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.

Speaking to the notion that a large part of success is defining it for ourselves, and defining it in terms as close to Thoreau’s as possible, Palmer reflects on his youth:

I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque… I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.

[…]

My youthful understanding of “Let your life speak” led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them whether they were mine or not. If that sounds like what we are supposed to do with values, it is because that is what we are too often taught. There is a simplistic brand of moralism among us that wants to reduce the ethical life to making a list, checking it twice — against the index in some best-selling book of virtues, perhaps — and then trying very hard to be not naughty but nice.

There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing. But something is very wrong if such moments recur often in adulthood. Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail — and may even do great damage.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Thirty years later, he arrives at a deeper, more ennobling, hard-earned interpretation of the old Quaker phrase after which the book is titled:

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

To be sure, this way of relating to life isn’t about passivity or resignation or an illusory belief in fatedness, but about deconditioning our tendency to try to bend the world to our will and instead hear the quieter, deeper voices that speak to us from behind the ego’s proclamations of will. In fact, the disposition Palmer advocates is something akin to Jeanette Winterson’s notion of “active surrender” — the same paradoxical state we need to attain in order to experience the transformational power of art appears to be the one needed in discerning our true vocation. Palmer writes:

If the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves — violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth. Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Listening, Palmer suggests, is a matter of shaking off the tyranny of “should” — whether socially imposed or self-inflicted. He offers a beautiful definition of what vocation really means and what it stands to give:

Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Thoreau’s famous lament about borrowed opinions and one particularly poignant in our culture of confusing repetition and regurgitation for reflection and integration, Palmer adds:

We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.

And yet, Palmer cautions, what we hear might not always be a mellifluous serenade by our highest selves — but giving voice to the parts of ourselves we least like is essential to the process:

My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.

Let’s take a necessary pause here to acknowledge that few words in our culture elicit more cynicism when mentioned publicly and more profound longing when contemplated privately than “soul.” We wince at soul-speak as the stuff of misguided mystics or, worse yet, motivational speakers. And yet hardly anyone with even the slightest semblance of aspiration toward happiness can deny the existence of this delicately sensitive, stubbornly resilient core of our humanity. What makes Palmer’s writing — Palmer’s mind — especially enchanting is the tenderness with which he holds both sides of this cultural duality, yet remains unflinchingly on the side of the soul:

In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.

The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild.' Click image for more.

With gentle compassion for our tendency to begin twenty years too late, Palmer writes:

What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.

He issues an especially passionate admonition against buying into the myth that a vocation is something bestowed upon us by an external force, some booming voice outside ourselves that does the “calling.” Instead, echoing Picasso’s proclamation that “one must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation,” he dismisses such misleading models of externalizing the quest for a calling:

That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “self-ish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.

Today I understand vocation quite differently — not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.

And yet, Palmer is careful to acknowledge, accepting that innermost gift “turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else” — overwhelmed by its demands, we often hide or flee from it, bury it in busywork, or simply ignore it. But, reflecting on his granddaughter’s distinct personality even as a baby, he assures that this gift is in each of us awaiting discovery:

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then — if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss — we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

Let Your Life Speak remains an indispensable read. Complement it with philosopher Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work and some thoughts on making a living of doing what you love, then revisit Palmer on the art of inner wholeness.

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How Van Gogh Found His Purpose: Heartfelt Letters to His Brother on How Relationships Refine Us

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“Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.”

Long before Vincent van Gogh became a creative legend and attained such mastery of art that he explained nature better than science, he confronted the same existential challenge many young people and aspiring artists face as they set out to find their purpose and do what they love — something that often requires the discomfiting uncertainty of deviating from the beaten path.

In January of 1879, twenty-six-year-old Van Gogh, who had dropped out of high school, was given a six-month appointment as a preacher in a small village — a job that consisted of giving Bible readings, teaching schoolchildren, and caring for the sick and poor. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task and, in solidarity with the poor, gave away all of his possessions to live in a tiny hut, where he slept on the ground. But his commitment backfired — the church committee that had hired him saw this as extravagant posturing of humility and fired him. In August, Van Gogh moved to a nearby village and took up drawing and writing — which he had been doing recreationally for years, for his own pleasure — as a more serious endeavor. That summer, his beloved brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future, making it clear that the family was concerned with his lack of direction. (Vincent was the eldest of six children, which only compounded the expectations.) The uncomfortable talk, which initially caused a rift between the brothers, affected Van Gogh profoundly and became a serious turning point in his life.

Young Vincent van Gogh

On August 14, 1879, he wrote an exquisite letter to Theo, found in the newly released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library | IndieBound). The letter endures as a piercing testament to the conviction that, as another famous young man wrote in his own defense of the unbeaten path, “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”

Van Gogh begins by turning a wise eye to the silver lining of why the conversation had hurt and riled him so:

It’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.

Noting the “salutary effect” his brother’s visit had on him, Van Gogh speaks to the soul-nurturing power of close relationships:

A prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man.

Theo van Gogh

The letter, however, takes on the tone of an impassioned plea as Van Gogh seeks to convince his brother that he, Vincent, is not the failure the family believes him to be. Lamenting what “the damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness” inflected by his uncle’s most recent attempt to convince him to return to school and pursue a proper occupation, Van Gogh scoffs at the formulaic life-path laid before those who pursue traditional education:

I would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.

Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?

In addressing his brother’s accusation of having “a taste for idling,” Van Gogh points out that there are degrees of doing nothing and speaks beautifully to the idea that what seems like boredom is an essential faculty of creativity:

Such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.

Putting jest aside, Van Gogh professes being “overcome by a feeling of sorrow” and a constant “struggle against despair” in the knowledge that his family sees him as “annoying or burdensome,” “useful for neither one thing nor another,” for his lack of purpose and direction in life. Expressing a wish for the relationship between the brothers to be “more trusting on both sides,” he makes a passionate case for being afforded some space, support, and optimism as he finds his own course:

If it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: It’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variables and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, 1879

Nearly a year elapses until the brothers reconnect — the longest break in their lifetime of letters and loving support — during which time Van Gogh sinks into a state of destitution and despair. On June 24 of the next year, he finally reaches out to Theo upon receiving 50 francs from him — around $200 in today’s money — which the aspiring artist accepts “certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling.” Indeed, he attests to the creative value of melancholy and echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of suffering as he writes to Theo:

What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.

[…]

Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.

Considering how he adapted to this state of “active melancholy” as he immersed himself in making art, Van Gogh makes a wonderfully self-aware remark about his notorious unkept appearance:

The man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs of social convention. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that field of study with which one is preoccupied.

Reflecting on having spent the past five years “more or less without a position, wandering hither and thither,” Van Gogh revisits the question of finding his purpose. In a sentiment reminiscent of Picasso’s remark that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” he offers a magnificent counterpoint to the myth that so frequently paralyzes people, especially young people, who set out to live a life of purpose — the idea that the path must reveal itself before you embark upon it, that you must “find yourself” before you begin your creative journey. Van Gogh writes:

On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. The goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s admonition that most people succumb to conformity by seeking out “a solid position in life” — that is, a humdrum jobby job — Van Gogh adds wryly:

One of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Countering his brother’s accusation that he has changed a great deal since their youthful walks together, Van Gogh argues that merely his circumstances changed, while his innermost values only deepened as he immersed himself more fully in his two great loves, art and literature:

What has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.

[…]

If you now can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.

'Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

He returns to the heart of the matter — the anguish of not having settled into his sense of purpose:

In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?

And yet as cut off from the capacity for affection as he may feel, Van Gogh nonetheless believes that love is the only conduit to connecting with one’s purpose, with divinity itself:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

Remarking on having benefited from “the free course at the great university of poverty,” Van Gogh envisions finding his purpose after a long period of floundering:

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

Once again, he appeals to his brother to see him as “something other than some sort of idler” and to learn to distinguish between the two types of idling, the destructive and the constructive:

There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t’ always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.

Bleeding from Van Gogh’s words is the hope that his brother would see him not as the first but as the second kind of “idler” — a hope he amplifies with a moving metaphor in closing the lengthy letter, one that speaks with harrowing elegance to the hastiness with which we tend to judge others and to mistake their circumstances for their capabilities:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

He concludes by returning to the ennobling, liberating nature of close relationships:

You know, what makes the prison disappear is very deep, serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell. But he who doesn’t have that remains in death. But where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

That summer, Vincent resolved to pursue art as his lifelong endeavor. It was Theo who first urged him to turn art into a career, and he soon became Van Gogh’s greatest champion and most selfless supporter — one of creative history’s greatest unsung sidekicks. Despite his well-documented and ultimately fatal struggle with mental illness, Van Gogh wrote frequently of the sublime joy and immense fulfillment he found in art — a sense of purpose without which his life would have been undoubtedly grimmer and quite possibly even shorter, and creative culture vastly impoverished.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a revelatory read in its hefty totality, brimming with insights into the rich and turbulent inner life of one of humanity’s greatest creative luminaries. Complement it with Vincent’s letters to Theo on art and the power of love, then marvel at how his greatest masterpiece explains the scientific mysteries of fluid dynamics.

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Our Fraught Relationship with Time, in Clever Minimalist Illustrations

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A witty visual meditation on our comical control strategies, the predictability of modern life, and our constant tussle with productivity and presence.

“I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular essay on time and language. “As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it.” And yet ever since Galileo invented modern timekeeping, the tyranny of the clock has not only bound but shackled us to the invisible dimension in everything from our internal rhythms to our ideal creative routines. Meanwhile, time, with its remarkable elasticity, continues to mystify us — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the capacity to imagine it made us human.

In About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock (public library | IndieBound), French-Armenian graphic designer Vahram Muratyan — who gave us the 2012 delight Paris vs. New York — builds on humanity’s long history of visualizing time, exploring its enduring mesmerism with great humor, sensitivity, and insight into modern life.

From the predictable cycles of our routines, relationships, and our fashions to our psychological tussles with the flow of life, Muratyan captures the profound anticipatory anxiety that defines our relationship with time — the expectation that there is always something more, or more important, to do, that the next moment must bring what this one lacks. He pokes gentle fun at our preoccupation with productivity at the expense of presence and at the chronic civilizational busyness making us forget that, in the unforgettable words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

One can almost hear Alan Watts’s voice booming from Muratyan’s minimalist vignettes, admonishing once more that “hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

There is also a meta-element commenting on the cyclical nature of time and our resistance to its flow — Muratyan’s visual sensibility is intentionally reminiscent of mid-century graphic design, vintage children’s books, and the aesthetic of the Mad Men era, as if to remind us that nostalgia is our most stubborn and wistful hedge against time’s merciless forward motion.

Although his project is undeniably intended to delight with visual humor, Muratyan rewards those willing to attend to what remains after the initial chuckle — a number of his vignettes explore the darker reaches of our relationship with time, reminding us that despite all of our efforts to control and constrain it, time itself inevitably has the upper hand in that play-pretend power dynamic.

In our recent conversation at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, Muratyan and I dove deeper into the heart of the project by discussing how the tyranny of the clock has enslaved our capacity for spontaneity and presence, why the a-ha! moments of creative breakthrough arrive when we least expect them, the relationship between motion and meditative contemplation, and how life’s most challenging experiences demolish all of our defenses and control strategies, leaving time as our only master. Please enjoy.

Complement About Time with Alan Watts on the art of timing, a visual history of mapping time and the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped while we vacation, then counter the frantic modern rhythms Muratyan teases with a lesson in stillness from Leonard Cohen.

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