I am in the middle of a painting right now. Not so long ago I was near the end of it, but I have fallen victim to the propensity to do what a teacher of mine some years ago described as over-painting. There is a kind of painting-over where you re-use a canvas. Alas, that may be the fate of this particular piece as a result of the other kind of over-painting – the propensity to put too much into a work. The instructor who spoke to me of this danger told the class that an artist doesn’t need to cover every detail when interpreting a scene. In fact, it is sometimes more effective to allow the human imagination to connect the dots, and finish the painting in the viewing. Perhaps this is most often the best. And it might be that this is a good lesson for life.
I remember as a child, doing a craft project at elementary school. It didn’t much interest me, and its being assigned near the end of the school year provided me with the opportunity to drag it out in the hopes the year’s end might bring to an end my need to finish it. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well, and both my teacher and my parents reminded me of the importance of completing what we start, a lesson that has served me well over the years. It is an important and laudable strategy in life, as long as we remind ourselves that some projects are best completed by not being finished. This latter bit might mean, I suppose, two different things. One the one hand, some projects need to be brought to completion by recognizing that they are not viable. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, “I gave it a go, but now is the time to let it go.” I had a great conversation with a pastor the other day about just this. She and I talked about the gift of allowing ourselves to fail, recognizing that sometimes what we aimed for just isn’t going to happen with this or that particular project. If the gospel accords us any right, it most certainly accords us the right to fail, and to embrace failure as a gift that is an occasion for learning and growing in the discipline of accepting our acceptance – as Tillich was wont to describe faith. On the other hand, sometimes we complete a project by not crossing every “t” and not dotting every “i.” Sometimes, what a project most needs is a little breathing space; some white between the colours and a pause between the notes.
I find art that is spacious to be the most invigorating, and yet I find it the most difficult to achieve. Being able to know when to quit is an important skill for artists, but really for all of us. Ending well is really a life project. I am grateful for the many ways that life affords us small opportunities to learn to let go; to let this creation or that project make its way into the world, removed from my propensity to add just a little bit more, and in so doing to take away so very much.