We Have a Thaw

Day 145 A Year of War and Peace

Cooking up potatoes

Today we’re going to think about the relationship between personal development, mental tranquility, and self-reflection and we’re going to do so by looking at the life of a man who cut off his ear for a hooker and then, later, fatally shot himself in the chest while standing in a wheatfield. That man, of course, is Vincent van Gogh and his method of self-reflection was letter writing.

Throughout his life Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his brother Theo. These letters are important not only because they provide biographical detail to the life of one of the great nineteenth century artists, but also because they showcase how vital thoughtful contemplation is for development of any sort. In his letters we find a man working through, by means of hard thought and careful analysis, the problems of his craft. With each letter we see him further refine and develop his style to the point where he’s able to produce masterpieces of painting such as Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, The Sower (after Millet), and Almond Blossom.

The same dedication Vincent van Gogh applied to reflecting and improving upon on his painting we can apply to our own lives in an effort to change for the better. In today’s chapter Pierre Bezukhov, that great striver of self-improvement, catches himself acting inappropriately. The moment comes as he speaks with Marya Bolkonsky. He has approached her to speak about courtship and marriage and any interest she may have in Boris Drubetskoy. He does so in a jesting way. This is an approach to conversation he does not approve of and the reason he’s able to catch it, we’re told, is because he keeps a diary where he reflects on his living.

Though this scene takes up a small portion of today’s chapter it really is important, especially in the case of Pierre’s character arc. As we’ve seen from the very beginning of the novel all the way through his work with the freemasons, Pierre is a man who is intent on living virtuously. Part of his search is keeping a self-reflective diary and being honest with himself about his successes and failures. By so doing Pierre not only learns how to live better but also he learns how to build up robust responses to unpleasant situations.

This is a practice the other characters in the novel would do well to adopt as well, particularly Marya. She’s in a bad place right now in terms of her sorrowful life and — spoiler alert! — that sorrow is about to get taken to the next level. So, in addition to urging her to engage in more self-reflective meditation in order to better steel herself against life’s horrible vicissitudes, I’d also leave her with one of our friend Vincent’s gems of insight:

To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw.

DAILY MEDITATION

Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.
Epictetus, Discourses

This is the one hundred and forty-fifth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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