Just You Wait

A while back I came across a strange study.  Researchers were examining failed suicide attempts.  These were people who actually went through with it, yet for one reason or another the attempt didn't work.  Maybe the gun didn't go off, or the rope broke, something.   The point is that these folks fully intended to kill themselves.  Only a fluke prevented it.  What I found oddly disquieting were their actions immediately after their failed attempt.  Most did something mundane: they made spaghetti,  they vacuumed the rug or went in to work.  It was as if they said, "Huh?  That was weird."  Then they continued on with their life.  Maybe the dark place you have to be in to attempt suicide is just a mood.  It  passes.

I've been thinking of this study lately.   Last Tuesday was perhaps the worst day of the year at work.  A project I had been working on with colleagues collapsed.  Feelings were running high and--to top it off--I stunk it up in the classroom, which always makes me feel bad.  I felt lousy all Tuesday evening.  Couldn't sleep, couldn't keep from rehashing it.  But by late Wednesday afternoon things were looking up.  I just had to wait it out.

I've also been thinking about Vincent Van Gogh.  Many years ago I read his collected letters, some of which were addressed to his brother, Theo, who also aspired to be a painter. Unfortunately, Theo was beset by paralyzing doubts about his own talent. In response to these doubts, Vincent wrote the following letter in September of 1883:

Theo, I wish painting would become such a fixed idea in your mind that the problem of "Am I an artist or am I not?" would be placed in the category of abstractions, and the more practical questions of how to put together a figure or a landscape, being more amusing, would come more to the fore. Theo, I declare I prefer to think how arms, legs, heads are attached to the trunk, rather than whether I myself are more or less an artist or not. I know sometimes the mind is full of it, which is only natural. But look here, brother, even if our mind is now and then full of the problem, "Is there a God or isn't there a God?" it is no reason for us to commit an ungodly act intentionally.
In the same way, the matter of art, the problem, "Am I an artist, or am I not?" must not induce us not to draw or not to paint. Most things defy definition, and I consider it wrong to fritter away one's time on them. Certainly when one's work does not go smoothly and when one is checked by difficulties, one gets bogged in the morass of such thoughts and insoluble problems. And because one gets sorely troubled by it, the best thing to do is to conquer the cause of the distraction by acquiring a new insight into the practical part of the work.
I am reminded of this letter whenever I feel like a failure in the classroom or at work. I remind myself that the thing to do is to keep working, to keep looking at the practical aspects of the job, just get back to work.  It's pity that Van Gogh, an eventual suicide, didn't follow his own advice. 

In reality, no matter how dark it seems, we're all just a few minutes away from spaghetti or housework.


frida said…
i was surprised to hear that van gogh, rather than being a suicide as was thought - was actually shot by mistake by some kid! did you read this?
Professor Quest said…
Oddly enough, I just heard about this in the last 24 hours. A podcat I listened to ("Stuff You Missed in History Class") recounted the evidence. They said the Van Gogh museum has not officially changed the cause of death. The evidence is sketchy but suggestive. Also, there is a theory that Van Gogh didn't cut off his own ear; rather Gauguin did it with a sword (he was apparently an avid fencer) and he and Van Gogh agreed to keep it secret and concocted a story for the authorities. Eh, who knows?

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