The Rule of Thirds
Letter from Away — February 24, 2022
Most people with an interest in the visual arts know about the rule of thirds. According to the website at slrlounge.com and just about every photographer and painter I know, the rule of thirds is a guideline that suggests the viewer’s eye is drawn to compositions in which the subject of a picture is placed in a zone made by dividing the image space evenly into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The theory suggests that aligning a subject in this way creates tension, energy and interest in a way that simple symmetry misses.
Last week I heard an interview with Arthur Brooks who is, like me, a columnist. Unlike me, Brooks writes for The Atlantic and is a social science professor at Harvard University. His latest book is “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.”
In the interview, Brooks told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that happiness should not be left to chance. He said there are two types of intelligence one can cultivate in order to ensure that blessed state.
“We don’t have to leave happiness in the second half of life up to chance,” Brooks said. “We can find a new kind of success if we’re willing to make some jumps and some changes and show some humility and have an adventure that’s better than the first half.’”
Most successful people use something called fluid intelligence, he claimed, “… which gives you the ability to solve problems, to crack the case, to innovate faster and to focus harder than pretty much all the competition early on in your career. This is your Elon Musk brain, and this increases through your 20s and into your 30s.” Brooks said that sort of thinking doesn’t tend to last, declining as we reach our middle years.
In order to continue on the road to the good life people need to learn how to use what he termed, “crystallized intelligence, which is your wisdom, your ability to compile the information that’s in your vast library to teach better, to explain better, to form teams better.”
This second way of seeing the world calls on us, “not to answer somebody else’s questions, but to form the right questions” ourselves.
I am all for that, even if I never had, and never will have, an Elon Musk brain.
I have my own rule of thirds. It’s about the three phases of human development: young, middle aged, and old.
When I was in my twenties, I was sure of my adulthood. More recently, watching others live through the challenges of that most challenging chapter of contemporary human life and remembering my own expectations and disappointments, I have come to see that that the shift from child to adult does not attach to any particular age on a calendar.
We have all known wise children and foolish elders. My rule of thirds is not about how we behave. It is about the reality of our mortality. The three life stages I describe are quite simply an issue of mathematics, a life divided by three. Zero to thirty — young. Thirty to sixty — middle. Sixty to ninety — you get the idea.
I get a lot of push back about this from friends entering their thirties, It turns out nobody likes to be called middle-aged. But, consider this: all phases take time. No one would argue that one is young at birth, or that one is old at eighty. But somewhere between the two, and long before youth fades and gray hair generally commences, there is life in the middle.
Most of those thirty-somethings who argue against my theory suggest that forty-five is middle age and that is true, as far as it goes. If life was lived in in disconnected moments, in discrete halves instead of mushy thirds, that would be sufficient. But existence is a continuum and the shift from phase to phase comes incrementally over time.
Some of us don’t get to thirty and others might make ninety or beyond. The reality I perceive is that, no matter how much energy I devote to not aging I continue to do it with every breath.
At twenty-nine I was single, a world traveler whose responsibilities stretched no farther than my own decisions. Two years later I was starting a family and choosing a place to settle down for a bit of life building. That lasted into my late fifties and by my early sixties I was watching my parents’ generation leave this earth and beginning to say goodbye to the people who had shared my own youth.
The bible, upon who’s authority many of us rely, allows each human three-score and ten years. Not an exact science but, like the theory that offers an asymmetrical balance to visual compositions, looking at longevity in terms of thirds can align our lives in a way that creates tension, energy and interest as our more exciting youth slips into the remote past.
The website at mymodernmet.com says the rule of thirds, a principle of balance first described by English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds in1797, can help the artist create dynamic compositions. By pulling the eye away from the center, former Maine Arts Commission associate Paul Faria told me 20 years ago, the artist forces the viewer to scan the whole work before settling on the obvious subject. Context becomes significant, movement prevails.
While I believe Arthur Brooks’ suggestion that we begin planning the transition to later life while still in our early adulthood is helpful, I’m pretty sure that happiness can never be guaranteed. Deep purpose, on the other hand, is in our control.
I am almost seventy and well into the range of old. While getting ready to die is not my sole occupation, I have found that preparation helps focus my life and offers a new sort of meaning beyond traditional ideas of success. “What you think right now is not what you’re going to think later,” Brooks said.
I might make it to ninety or so, whether I want to or not; more and more people do it every day and science is crazy interested in stretching human life out longer. Few people in their twenties want to imagine how they will live when their bodies are getting ready to quit their day jobs. Somewhere along the way — halfway or one-third through — it might be time to start living with our mortality.
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.