Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.
What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.
In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,
The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.
I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.
My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.
What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.