What Are We?

Being “cultured” is extremely important to me. I want to appreciate all kinds of art and music, and as such I sometimes agree to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise care about. For example, I hate to admit it, but I don’t particularly like classical music. However, if I see an opportunity to go to the symphony, you know I’m there, because I want to be the kind of person who appreciates classical music and whose intelligence and ability to connect with others improves because of it.

But as much as I try, art in particular is hit or miss. I’ll go to museums, but when I don’t get something I really don’t get it. And I’m loud about it, too. (“This is literally a red square! I can draw this! Why is it here!? Gahhhhh!) So this week when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts I felt no surprise at the fact that certain works of art completely underwhelmed me.

For example, this painting by Paul Gauguin, entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”


“No,” I said to myself, staring at the huge canvas. “This painting is not trying to tell me that it asks the biggest questions of human existence. This artist is so pretentious. This is a bunch of people standing around outside, that’s all.” I may not be attuned to the deep symbolism of art, but I am always open to learning, so I gave the painting’s description a try. It turns out that this painting depicts life’s journey. Viewing from right to left, we witness birth and childhood. In the center, at life’s prime and standing out possibly the most, is the adolescent or young adult. And moving further along, we see adulthood and, finally, weak and dark death.

I admit that the painting’s purpose makes sense to me now that I know the description, but I’m not sure whether everyone would have quite put it together given only the title. On one hand, it’s frustrating; why put this piece in front of me that has so many hidden meanings and secrets, if I’m never going to be able to figure them out? But on the other hand, isn’t that life? In life, potentially meaningless things are put in front of us all of the time, and it’s our job to attempt to appreciate them. When people show up in our lives, we see in them what I first saw in this painting: an appearance. But we have the potential to ask for the description, to find out what makes that person tick, to discover the secrets and hidden meanings. Maybe it takes more work, but I think it’s certainly more rewarding.

I think that art, even if we don’t enjoy it, teaches us an important life lesson. Everything has a meaning, if you’re willing to see it. Maybe when I frustratedly stare at a red square, that’s all I see. But maybe the artist saw the red square as a movement, a rebellion against religious depictions. Maybe he or she saw it as a metaphor for all-encompassing power. Or maybe that artist just wanted to make people think. As humans, we can go around being angry that not everything fits into our personal understanding of the world. But, in the words of one of my favorite meaning-finders, Ted Mosby, “Or…”

Or we can decide that even if we don’t understand someone or something, that someone or something still deserves to be understood. Or we can give each person and thing in life the benefit of our effort. Or we can learn to live with acceptance of the confusing, un-pattern-able world around us. Or we can recognize that every person is more than meets the eye. Or we can rejoice in the fact that we don’t know everything, that there’s always more to learn. Or we can exercise our minds, forcing ourselves to find a deeper meaning in everything. Because there is always a deeper meaning. Always.

Our artist friend Paul Gauguin asked, “What are we?” Not who, but what. Because we’re not just people. We’re a collection of a trillion bits of atoms and memories and experiences and organs and a soul. There is so much more to us than we, let alone anyone else, will ever understand. We’re more than people just standing around. We’re going through the journey of life, and maybe it’s hard to understand, but we have everything to gain if we just try.

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