I recently finished an 879-page book called Van Gogh – The Life. Vincent Van Gogh had a very troubled life. He never quite seemed to find his way in our world. He was a black sheep wherever he went. Ironically, the first time he ever seemed to feel accepted was in the insane asylum. His asylum was a fairly progressive environment, even by today’s standards. The wards were allowed a lot of freedom depending upon their level of debilitation. Vincent was allowed to paint and draw without being ridiculed or corrected. He was able to walk around without being followed by taunting children or rejected by gossiping adults – the type of behavior he was subjected to outside the asylum.
What struck me most about Vincent’s lifelong descent into mental illness was the contrast between how he was treated at the asylum versus how most of his family and all of his neighbors treated him. At the asylum he was treated like a sick person who needed care. In contrast, most of his family treated him like an embarrassing burden worthy of scorn. In their defense, family reputation was the “credit report” of the day and a great deal of superstition surrounded the topic of mental illness . Nevertheless, the scorn and rejection Vincent suffered his whole life went a long way towards making his condition worse.
Many times we think that if we hurt, punish, and criticize people, we can “help” them change and become more like we want them to be. We think that scorn and ridicule are harmless ways of keeping each other in line. What hatred and alienation really do to people, however, is turn them into ticking time bombs.
What if instead of punishing people for “being wrong” in some way, we looked for ways to establish common ground? What if instead of ignoring the mentally ill and/or leaving them to wander around homeless, we found ways to integrate them into society, allowing them to be made useful in some way, according to their own capacity? What if instead of subjecting criminals to the eternal condemnation of forever-lost voting rights and near-impossible employment after incarceration, we spent all the time and money we spend on jails to come up with ways for these individuals to rehabilitate themselves? Why is it that we have several cures for erectile dysfunction, but we can’t find a way to treat all of our citizens as if they are people?
I believe we can all stretch our thinking a little bit to find ways to love and encourage people. Even when people do things that make us angry, it is not our anger or punishment that resolves the situation. Love is the only emotion that has the power to heal. This doesn’t mean that we ignore bad behavior or allow ourselves to be doormats. But when we start from a position of compassion and respect, instead of hatred and blame, we tend to make decisions that are helpful rather than vengeful. Revenge is an endless cycle of increasing negativity that destroys all its participants. We can never punish enough, hate enough, or insult each other enough to make this world a better place to live.
May we all use our creativity to find ways to encourage and respect each other. This is very difficult, but it is the only thing that brings lasting peace.
Have a great week filled with love and respect! Now go follow your bliss…