I once watched a movie which depicted the life of a painter… The painter, described by the Internet as ‘morally skittish’, left his family behind for a carefree, Tahitian existence. If I remember correctly, the painter had a friend who also aspired to be an artist -except that the friend had a more responsible approach. The friend kept his day job and provided for his family while pursuing painting part time whenever he could.
If I recall correctly, the protagonist painter mocked his friend at some point in the movie for thinking that he could have it both ways. Or at least that’s how I remember it. The way I interpreted it was that the protagonist painter was saying you’re frittering the best of your creativity away at a job which then exhausts the better part of your day and leaves you with crumbs for your art, then you expect your art to flourish?
I understand what he was saying. The most remembered people tend to be those who abandoned everything whether literally or figuratively to pursue their talents at full-throttle. The ability or the space to focus solely on what we were born for is unparalleled -especially when coupled with persistence and longevity. However, the friend represented to me the conscience of it all.
Those who have a conscience that allows them to live that way can do it and get away with it, realise their wildest dreams -should talent allow. But those whose conscience and empathy is too large will suffer. The latter won’t be able to live with their actions. This is why taking advice from other people isn’t always what will fix things. The advice that will work is the one that aligns with who we really are; it is compatible to who we really are. When we take incompatible advice, we resist it and fight against it until we defeat our own progress.
That friend may have always felt sad that he did not devote his life to his talents. But maybe he would have felt worse if he had, to the detriment of his family. Likewise, the protagonist painter may have always felt miserable for abandoning his family. But maybe he would have drunk himself to death if he had lived the family life to the detriment of his art. In both cases, it would have helped if both people knew themselves quite well before committing to the business of creating families. But that’s not how most people get into it. Balance then seems like a myth we like to sell to each other.
In the end, the work we do to make ends meet interrupts our lives in a way that can’t always be seamlessly managed. And the life we try to live gets in the way of us making ends meet for our families, or for ourselves. Do I agree with the protagonist painter’s approach? No. I think children and spouses are a choice that can’t be given up for the ‘virtues of making art’, as important as that art is. And it turns out Paul Gauguin really was ‘morally skittish’.
I also understand that nothing is as black and white as balance. Sometimes you’re giving a little more in one area and neglecting another -while always wishing you were balancing everything perfectly 100% of the time. And then sometimes our humanity is not in tandem with our work -and family could also be classified as work, sometimes. We tend to overwhelmingly feel what we don’t want to. We want to be honest and hardworking in workplaces that devour such individuals. We want to be transparent and connect with family members who will use those traits against us. We want to sacrifice for others, even when it leaves us feeling invisible and taken for granted. Because all those things are the right things to do? And we must be them whatever the cost -particularly in our personal lives.
These are the lessons we pass down to our children, especially when those lessons don’t make sense. And as we pass them down, we expect our children to be able to stand up for themselves in future, to do what they love, to be model (aka good) people -conveniently ignoring that all those things don’t go together as neatly as we hope. There is a disconnect somewhere, and that disconnect will be found in all the secrets the children feel they must keep from us. The secrets become secrets because the work of relationships (and probably also day jobs) must be balanced with the complexities of being alive, having compulsions and convictions no one has time or patience for.
Sometimes that balance means that compromises, which really aren’t compromises to a certain party, must be made. One painter must give up his art -while convincing himself he didn’t give up his art- in order to live a good, responsible, seemingly-balanced life. Why must he give up his art? Because, of course, it is the lesser thing between the two: family and art. Yet, to the other painter, it is not the lesser thing. It is the meaning of his existence. To him, his family is the lesser thing, the thing he can mentally and emotionally afford to give up. Just because society does not deem it so, does not mean this is not true for him. To us, it’s become a moral issue by this point. Yet to him, it is clear what he would rather do. To him there’s no compromise that can be made. Something has to be given up.
This is the cost of living the ideal life that everyone is so proud to uplift. We don’t truly make room for the possibility that ‘ideal’ varies from one individual to the next, even with our own loved ones. And then we wonder why people make massive mistakes that impact many. Or why some people opt out of ‘great’ lives.
The example of art and work/life balance applies to so many arenas of our existences where the ‘frivolous’ is more important (to some of us) than we give it credit for. Learning to listen to ourselves might make for the best personal development program if only we gave it a chance and might avoid heartache down the road.
Golgotha Self-Portrait by Gauguin