“I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh’s powerful work is known for its beauty, emotion, and color. Although many of the images are achingly familiar, he never sold a single painting in his lifetime. The irony is several of his paintings now rank among the most expensive in the world. Irises sold for a record $53.9 million, and his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million. He is considered to be the greatest Dutch painter, perhaps after Rembrandt, but was poor and unknown during his lifetime.
The story of his life is tumultuous and extremely difficult read. It’s said he painted The Starry Night while in the throes of emotional torment. In the end, struggling with mental illness, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-seven. His story is a classic tale of a tortured genius. His biographers describe a difficult and temperamental man with deep psychological fissures from his childhood that only widened over time.
I have often pondered the tragedy of Van Gogh’s life. Did his art arise from his suffering? Why, we ask, did such genius go unnoticed or unrewarded during his life? Was his pain so difficult to be around when he was alive that the genius of his art was eclipsed by his personality? And, in a larger sense, why do so many artists suffer a similar if less dramatic fate? Is it true that sorrow can be turned into great art?
Many have wrestled with these questions and with the pain of their own artistic life. The path of the artist may relate to the spiritual path and to the capacity to live with a truly open heart. As I find myself much closer to the end of my life than the beginning, I am pondering my own life purpose, which has never really seemed to come into focus–I have never found the bliss that Joseph Campbell spoke of. I experienced a small measure of success in the corporate world, but have been unable to support myself through my creative work. I struggle. I strive. And yet the balance I seek eludes me.
Like Van Gogh the stars are also a source of wonder and inspiration to me. I have always known that my true home is somewhere out there, and living on this planet, however beautiful, has often felt like exile. Even as a child my longing to return to the stars was extreme. So I reach deep inside in search of meaning and rise each dawn to face the day, hoping to be of use and perhaps make a small difference with the words that come from my efforts. Hard lessons in my life have taught me that life is not about what we accomplish, earn, or own, but who we become as channels of loving kindness. I have come to understand that the truest and most powerful creative act is to become a compassionate being and to know the depth of the truth of Maya Angelous’s words,
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In the time we are experiencing in the world our loving kindness is often the most priceless gift we can offer.