A Word from Vincent Van Gogh: Setting Your Caged Bird Free

Years ago I came across a collection of letters that the master of epileptic sunflowers and starry nights had sent to his brother Theo, and interspersed throughout these missives were countless gems of diamond cut insights that spoke directly to the human condition, often with a particular emphasis on the plight of the artist (a plight with which Van Gogh was clearly on intimate terms). The clarity of perception portrayed by these letters is pitched to such a point that I would rank them among the works of Rilke, the Tao Te Ching, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, or any of the other great treatises dedicated to the analysis of virtuous living.

One I saved, and it relates to what I posted recently about the nature of dissatisfaction…

This is quite a different kind of idle man; you may if you like take me for such a one. A cage bird in spring knows quite well that he might serve some end; he feels well enough that there is something for him to do but, he cannot do it. What is it? He does not remember too well. Then he has some vague ideas and says to himself, “The others make their nests and lay their eggs and bring up their little ones,” and so he knocks his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage remains and the bird is maddened by anguish.

“Look at the lazy animal,” says another bird that passes by, “he seems to be living at his ease.” Yes the prisoner lives and he does not die, there are no outwards signs of what passes within him; his health is good, he is more or less gay when the sun shines. But then comes the season of migration bringing attacks of melancholia. “But he has got everything he wants,” say the children that tend him in his cage, while he looks through the bars at the overcast sky, where a thunderstorm is gathering and he inwardly rebels against his fate. “I am caged, I am caged, and you tell me I do not want anything, fools! You think I have everything I need! Oh! I beseech you, liberty, so that I can be a bird like other birds!”

In the modern world, this ‘caged bird syndrome’ has become the norm. Our comforts have made dissatisfaction the generally accepted state of being. We become comfortable and so we become forgetful of the dreams and impulses we once felt in our youths, before the forces of security and sensibility stripped us of what some might call ‘flights of fancy’, and I call ‘imagination’.

One might be inclined to ask, how can it be our comforts that are leading to dissatisfaction? Isn’t that comfort what I’ve worked so hard for my whole life to achieve?

The proof is in the fact that we (and I am speaking specifically about the United States when I say this, because it is what I know best, though this is certainly a problem that afflicts most of the industrialized world) have one of the most ‘comfortable’ standards of living, yet a staggering percentage of our people are prescribed various medications to ease their various anxieties and concerns about day to day life. And if they’re not on pills they’re drinking themselves blind. Or committing suicide. It seems to me that that caged bird pounding its head against the bars lives in all of us, and its name is Dissatisfaction. Quoth the raven, “We’re so bored.”

If comfort is so wonderful—and we have certainly achieved it—why are so many people dissatisfied?

The truth is that humans were not born into a comfortable existence. When we first emerged as a species, life was struggle. When each of us are born, we enter an unfamiliar world where everything is new, making it all terrifying but simultaneously fascinating. Comfort is not our natural habitat, but one that has been imposed on us. It’s an artificial way of living that must exist so that we will continue to buy toasters and electronic gadgets.

To escape the dissatisfaction brought on by comfort, we’re going have to get back to our roots. We’re going have to get a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit wild.

That doesn’t mean that we need to start living in caves and sleeping on the ground and pooping in the woods (although those are all experiences worth having). It means that we have to step out of our comfort zones more often. We have to go out and talk to unfamiliar people and put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. You know why children possess the capacity to be so happy? Because everything is new and every time they discover something new it’s amazing.

Remember when you first went away to college or when you first moved away from your parent’s house? Wasn’t it exciting and just a little bit terrifying? And didn’t you have a bookshelf made of milk cartons and eat off of paper plates and sit on the floor for the first two months because you didn’t have any chairs? You had no furniture, lived off of Top Ramon and cheap beer, and had no idea what the future would bring. Didn’t it kind of suck, but wasn’t also one of the happiest, most exhilarating periods of your life?

I suppose I’ll cut this off with a simple piece of advice. If you’re feeling unhappy, if Dissatisfaction is knocking its head against the inside of your ribcage, keep an eye open for any opportunity to experience something daring and a little bit out of your usual comfort zone. It’s what you were born to do, and it will make a caged bird sing.



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