The Van Gogh Paradox

van gogh self portrait“He was like you, Honey!”

My heart sank. I’d already noticed the similarities and was trying to squash a rising anxiety when my husband glibly compared me to Vincent Van Gogh.

We were elbow-to-elbow in a line of strangers at the Art Institute of Chicago, sliding past a wall upon which hand sketches and black-and-white photographs illustrated the timeline of Van Gogh’s life. Each date on the wall denoted a change of address or career. On the surface, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was about the painter’s three nearly identical paintings of his bedroom in a house in Arles, Frances, but the wall at the entrance made clear the real thesis of the Special Exhibition: this was a story about the endless wanderings of a lost man.

Van Gogh’s earliest moves were as a baby, completely unremarkable in any other life but fated to become part of a perpetual pattern as the child grew up and moved to boarding schools before becoming a man who moved in search of work. The work was consistently unsteady and unsatisfying. First an art dealer, then a minister, and later a teacher, Van Gogh finally settled on calling himself an artist when he was 27 and his brother offered–or maybe agreed–to support him financially.

“He was like you, Honey!”

I don’t remember all the homes I lived in as a child, but I know there were at least a dozen. I’ve moved my own children to and from four houses and one RV in the last five years.

And of course there are the jobs; the many, many jobs that I’ve started and loved and hated and quit. I’ve worked in radio and advertising and telemarketing and network marketing and recruiting sales and website making and travel writing and parent blogging. I’ve sold everything from dismemberment insurance to massage packages. I’ve worked full-time and part-time and freelance and contract.

At the end of March, on Van Gogh’s birthday actually, I ended my last job, in part so that I can focus on calling myself an artist. A writer, really. My husband offered–or maybe agreed–to support us all financially in the meantime. The guilt of that decision has been weighing on me since we began considering it a few months back.

At the same time my job satisfaction deteriorated, Jared’s career flourished. It seemed the more I complained, the more money he made. Or maybe his success intensified my restlessness, envy swelling as I watched his confidence grow. My financial irrelevance was obvious, and I struggled to find another handhold of validation.

For his part, Jared thought it was “dumb” that I would keep doing something that didn’t make me happy when I didn’t have to. “Seriously Britt, I’ll just work a Saturday,” he’d say in his efforts to reassure me that, as a family, we’d be fine. Of course this just drove home the point that what I was doing didn’t matter.

It also drove home how much we’d come to depend on Jared, and that scared the hell out of me. What if something happened to him? I found myself obsessing over his health and safety. I spent hours researching things like insurance and investments online. What if? What if? What if?

What if this one person I had become so dependent on somehow failed me?

I was furious for getting myself into this situation. I was ashamed to even be thinking about taking advantage of it, leaning into it, solidifying my own vulnerability and worthlessness.

My brothers and I have said hundreds of times that we were raised by a single mom. Ironically, my mother has been married to someone for all of my and most of her adult life. She has been many things, but single was rarely one of them. And yet so absolute was her self reliance that in our collective ethos she remains a single mother. The story of her scrubbing motel toilets on her knees when she was 9-months pregnant with my brother is not one of shame but rather of pride and honor.

Thirty years after that motel job, her daughter is becoming a stay-at-home mom with no stay-at-home kids. A kept woman. An artist with a patron.

I don’t know how to wrap my arms around this privilege without also embracing my guilt in having it.

My hope is that in accepting my privilege I can find a way to use it for more than my own good. I have no idea yet what that might look like, and that uncertainty threatens to drive me crazy at times.

I don’t use that word lightly. This is something else Mr. Van Gogh and I share: a fragile center.

His life was dotted with breakdowns and hospital stays, and it was ended by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In recent decades there’s been speculation about whether he really shot himself or if perhaps there was some kind of accident, but all the historians can agree on the real cause of death.

“Van Gogh lost his life to mental illness in 1890,” the wall said.

He was 37.

I am 36.

“He was like you!” my husband said.

“Yeah, I know,” I hung my head.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, instantly sensing his mistake and the heaviness of what he’d merely said aloud.

“No, you’re right, I was thinking the same thing. Moved all the time, can’t hold a job, a little crazy.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said again.

An hour later we emerged from the Special Exhibition weary, awed, and slightly depressed. It was impossible not to look at Van Gogh’s artistic brilliance through the filter of his own lack of fulfillment. He found a patron, but he never found a home or a love. He died without knowing he’d found his purpose.

Van Gogh at once personifies my deepest fear and greatest hope. Hindsight reveals his positive impact on mankind, but his personal journey ended in disappointment. He left a legacy, but was unhappy.

My latest transition to unemployment is immediately fueled by my search for individual happiness, but one of my most closest held beliefs is that ultimate happiness is linked to our ability to positively affect others. Our pursuit of happiness is our path to purpose. This artist’s sad demise and posthumous accomplishments might suggest otherwise. But isn’t it the tracks left by his constant searching that has touched the lives of millions in the last century?

Poor Vincent couldn’t know that it was always going to be about the search, the struggle.

I’ve tried to let this be a comfort, a reminder that the journey is the reward and all that nonsense. Selfishly, I hope to achieve what Van Gogh could not: a glimmer of resolution before I go.

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  1. Bette says:

    Fantastic post! Just remember — being a writer is a full-time job. You’re not sponging off your husband, you’re working!

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