No matter what we do, we lose — loved ones, possessions, function, life. At some point a fundamental question arises — how can we live a reasonably happy life while carrying an awareness of inescapable loss? Maybe one answer is not to confront the question. We might acknowledge its power, but seek to evade its hold. We might choose instead to fill the spaces made newly empty by loss with other vital, affirming actions that have the power to capture us — we can seek to create a life that, but for the periodic rest that is the necessary contrast, always moves forward to engage others, ideas, nature, art, work and the bliss of action.
Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist painter and the protagonist of the play Red, is given lines that speak to such an immersion in action and virile beauty – “Movement is everything. Movement is life,” and “I’m here to stop your heart. I’m not here to make pretty pictures.” His Seagram’s Murals and his other his red paintings, are ablaze with a life force. To paraphrase his assistant in Red, “they pulse”. Mark Rothko’s Red Paintings
However, his ferocious temperament challenged others but also and especially his own talent and purpose. One comes away from the play believing that his ferocity turned against him, and that when he could not find a balance between that ferocity and the inevitable imperfections of life and work, he committed suicide.
So maybe the question must evolve: How can we both engage life and find a balance between its competing fears and joys, anxieties and exultations?
Delight breeds delight or to see it another way, as Bill Cunningham says, “He who seeks beauty will find it.” Bill Cunningham is the 86 year old creator of the New York Times features On The Street and Evening Hours and he is the humble star of the inspiring documentary Bill Cunningham: New York.
Cunningham has been walking and bicycling New York City Streets almost every day for 6 decades, taking photographs of what men and women are wearing. His enormous catalog is a history of street fashion. He loves patterns and the idiosyncratic. He has a superb eye for trends. Most importantly, he seems to have discovered how to be consistently, vibrantly happy. He is absorbed in New York street life, in all its grit and capacity to surprise, and he also photographs (but does not envy) its flashiest
counterpoint, the parties and charity events of its wealthiest and most celebrated residents.
Unmarried, monk-like, a man who goes to Mass every Sunday, disdainful of money, disdainful of status, eccentric, dedicated to preserving his independence, humble, both reserved and exuberant — he inhabits a life engraved with contrasts: he lives alone and has never had a romantic relationship but is beloved of co-workers at the Times, of fashion designers, of New York’s aristocracy, of Parisians and of those who recognize him while he is working on New York’s streets. Bill Cunningham: On the Street
In spite of having access to the wealthiest New Yorkers and to possibilities of his own wealth if he had indicated a wish to belong, he has chosen simplicity of purpose and independence of action – to ride his Schwinn bicycle every day and most nights through New York traffic, to “let the street speak to him”, to embrace the continual education of his eye, to work — to choose rather than have others choose for him. His life indicates that leisure should not be the goal of happiness, but instead, that the closest we might come to lasting joy requires an immersion in work, in purpose and in beauty.