The National Gallery of Art at The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. has a room with four walls and four doorways. While walking slowly through the museum more than 25 years ago, I found myself captivated in this particular room. In fact, I returned two more times just to take it in.
There was just one painting on each of the four walls; the four paintings telling one story.
Completed by the 1850s, The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole is a series depicting one man’s journey, beginning at Childhood and then going through Youth, Manhood, and ending at Old Age. The allegorical paintings are rich in color, imagery, and meaning.
One part of the story that struck me was the fact that the man traveled alone. In Childhood there is an angel watching over him, but in Youth he dismisses the angel as he sees himself as young and invincible. The angel quietly watches from afar in Manhood as the man loses control of the boat amidst what would appear to be certain doom.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized what I had felt was missing in the paintings, but couldn’t put my finger on. I had subconsciously been looking for others to be with the man in the boat.
For some reason he felt that he didn’t need others to travel his journey with him. He was sure he could do it alone.
Fast forward to 2015. It would be literally impossible to enumerate the technological, scientific, literary, artistic, medical, and countless other advancements in the last 150 years. I would imagine that Thomas Cole’s contemporaries could no more conceive our unimaginable standard of living, let alone just how many of the masses were afforded it.
With all our insatiable frenzy for bigger, better, and faster, I wonder if we have forgotten to spend as much energy on understanding, investment, and protection of the one basic necessity of humankind: The Family.
How many of us are still trying to guide the boat on our own?
I submit that we will find our greatest discoveries, our greatest achievements, and our greatest joy lying within the walls of our own homes.
Using the pattern set by the artist Cole, it may be worth segmenting our lives similarly. Each is worth evaluating the critical role our family plays in our growth; and the equally critical role we play in theirs.
Here we experience the family we trust unreservedly, depend on completely, and love innocently. It is in this family unit where we build our foundation of how we see the world. Even more importantly, this is where the mirror is created that reflects how we see ourselves.
We certainly don’t understand at the time, but as a child we have more power to change the heart of a person than at any other stage of life.
As we grow, we find ourselves clashing with our family over what is concurrently both nothing and everything. Our parents are seen generally as less intelligent, less understanding, and less aware than as we see ourselves. Older siblings are too often models we can’t live up to; younger siblings exist simply to annoy and irritate.
We provide one of the most frustrating, confusing and tiring periods of life for our parents. Conversely, we have the ability to provide rare moments that make the whole experience worth it.
Manhood (certainly including all women):
The apron strings have been cut. We jump into this phase of life certain that we won’t repeat what we saw as mistakes in the family we just left. Reluctantly, as time goes by, we find ourselves more like our parents than we ever thought possible. Realities of just how hard it is to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table tax us to our very limits.
We find ourselves needed by those who have come after us to guide, mold, and protect. We also find ourselves needed by those who have come before us to respect, listen, and be patient. It’s a fine tightrope to walk.
Years now pass as weeks used to. Our children and their children are moving on without us, reaching for higher stars that we ever thought possible.
Together, this makes up The Family:
I wonder if it would be worth our time over the next several weeks to explore just how important each of these phases in family life is in choosing our choices, deciding our destiny, and embracing our eternity.
Some topics of discussion could include the family’s role in Faith, Temptation, Destiny, Discipline, Questioning, and Proving the Power of Prayer. Perhaps other themes will develop as we find new insights.
Hopefully, we will generate topics for discussion around the dinner table, discussions that could lead our family to board the boat together rather than trying to go it alone, as did the subject of Cole’s allegory.
It’s important to remember The Family is where we began; perhaps it is time to recognize it as where we will also end.
Our Final Frontier.