Brain Food #799: When there is nothing extra
Darkness can be illuminating
Thoughts of the day
Today’s post is slightly longer, addressing a question a reader sent following Monday’s thoughts on looking back to be grateful.
Though practicing gratitude has its advantages, research has also discovered some people are more capable of feeling grateful than others; this can inevitably lead some of us to be hard on ourselves, as if we are missing out on a universal secret of optimising one’s well-being.
It is easy for gratitude to turn into toxic positivity, and for it to become a condescending form of consolation for those who haven’t achieved or received as much as they wanted. Perhaps looking back, instead of showing progress, becomes an act of discomfort and disappointment. And, sometimes, it might just be too painful to notice what wasn’t there before. Perhaps there is nothing extra.
Yet, darkness and lightness have always coexisted. According to Plato, they are the main drivers of our psyche, and sometimes we project them into the world. When the former prevails, there are ways, paved by others who have trodden the same human territories, to see gratitude — forgive me for the pun — in a different light, or even despite it.
In this context, I thought of Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert. His body of work is dark, depicting lonely figures in dimly lit rooms and empty streets at night, painted in moody tones. He, too, like many others before him and after him, was a walker. He suffered from insomnia, and so he would roam the streets of his hometown Ostend to observe the darkness and silence. The bleakness of his work is perhaps due to his lack of critical recognition, which allegedly caused him much anxiety. Yet he carried on painting.
But, perhaps unknowingly, Spilliaert’s paintings were illuminated. As some critics pointed out, he used so many layers of dark colour, that the paint was shining. When describing this effect, critic Anne Adriaens-Pannier said, “when you look closely at the works you see that because of these many layers they start to shine.” For Spilliaert light came through the darkness.
In the dark, it is harder to see, but our eyes eventually adjust to the absence of light. When it is hard to see progress, particularly in the depths of darkness, perhaps there is still a path we can follow, even if it is not immediately visible to us. Spilliaert had no destination in his nightly walks, and his career never reached the peaks he had hoped for, but by revealing his inner state through his paintings, he created a portal for others to see and feel what they were not able to previously.
One of Nietzsche’s most powerful quotes is: “When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.” The line is as ominous as it is cryptical, much like Spilliaert’s work. The abyss contains the unknown, our darkest parts, darkest moments, even our darkest desires, what Jungian psychologists would call the shadow self. Our responsibility is not to ignore those realities, but to face them, even when they are too difficult to see. We can be like Spilliaert (and many others before and after him). In such moments the best strategy might be to go for a walk, and to make something out of it, perhaps something others will be grateful for. To step out into the dark, even if the light is where we cannot see it.
In Young Woman on a Stool, she, too, is gazing into the abyss, choosing to stare at the dark wall in front of her, despite the two windows on each side of her. Yet her figure is illuminated; she can see something we cannot. When there is nothing to feel grateful for, the next best strategy might be to examine the darkness.
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