Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part I: Crystal Bridges

William Wetmore Story

My wife and I were at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville yesterday. 

The collection is a fine one, with several gems; but perhaps the importance of it is not so much the individual works of art, but the way it traces a broad and intelligent trajectory across the transition that took place in art between the 18th and 20th centuries, a time of radical re-evaluation in the visual arts.  

Viewed through the lens of a single (and oft perceived-as-outlier) country and its artists, the magnitude of the change seems more apparent than when viewed at other institutions; and in addition to offering us a new lens through which to view that transformation, it affirms the fact that American art and American artists have steadfastly fashioned and truly owned their own unique, separate, and equally valid vision of art. 

Much more could be said about that; but what struck me during the museum visit was a simple exchange between ourselves and a young man serving as a security guard. We chatted a bit about the layout of the grounds; and during the exchange I realized that he had a mild speech impediment and was slightly disabled.

This struck a deep emotional chord in me. Coming fresh off a weekend of work with the Arkansas group, I was more directly receptive to such impressions; and it came to me suddenly that I have no real appreciation for how fortunate I am. 

"I have no right to complain," I thought to myself, "...but I do have an obligation to love."

I complain about a lot of things in my life, but in fact there's very little to complain about. I am of reasonably sound health and mind, and ought to not find fault with my conditions, which are in truth very tolerable indeed. I arrogate this right to complain to myself without thought or mindfulness; and it is entirely lacking in compassion. 

I DO have an obligation to love, which means, to follow the instruction of Christ: "love one another as I have loved you." This is a point of work I ought to question and take in much more actively and deeply in my daily life. This obligation to love ought to take precedence over the selfishness of complaint; yet I so often forget it. I risk becoming a tiny, whining creature unfit for any real service; and I need to keep a much closer eye on that. 

Really I do.  

I have been forced again and again by my life to the point where I'm required to see that I am unloving; and that I truly—not theoretically—ought to forgive all those around me as Christ forgave us. 

This forgiving I speak of is not a forgiving that took place long ago, when He died; or a forgiving I can attend to later when I am ready. In a certain sense I'm never ready to forgive, and I need to remember that. I need to forgive NOW; and I need most especially to forgive the people who I am truly angered by, the ones I like the least and who do me the most harm. 

Now, I've had to do this kind of inner work repeatedly over the course of a lifetime; and each time I do it I pretend to myself that I've learned something real. I want to award myself crowns of golden laurel leaves and pat myself on the back. But the simple fact is that it's inner bullshit; I end up finding myself at this same place over and over again because I haven't learned anything. 

I'm reminded here of an exchange between my teacher and myself some years ago where, after twenty years of work with her, she angrily said to me, "you haven't understood anything!"... And she was right. Not right, perhaps, in her anger; she often expected too much of me… which was her job. But she was right about my understanding. And I see now fifteen years later (having finally understood a few of those things she was upset with me about) that I don't understand forgiveness; it isn't an inherent part of what I am. I keep having to understand it over and over again, every time, because I am not forgiving. I suspect I never truly will be; it is a lesson to be learned again repeatedly through suffering.

It's only through this repeated humility of suffering that I come to a realization of just how small I am; and it is a real gift to see that. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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