There’s an Agnes Martin piece called ‘The Moment.’ It’s an egg form composed of a series of classic Martin-ian horizontal lines. Her birthday was this last March, although she passed in 2004. The first time I saw it, it in many ways represented incubation and constancy; even innocence. One might see it and read it line by line down until the bottom, seeing a resemblance to life’s beginning to end. Contemplating it birthed thoughts about the meaning of growth, learning and stretching – that which comes from the incubator of difficulty, pain & inconvenience. Seeing it reminded me that eggs like the one in ‘The Moment’ develop well in appropriate heat, and life is birthed from these times which are anything contrary to comfort and stability.
The Moment’ lends a window to look out of, with Martin’s history of such scrutiny of her work as a pamphlet to guide in what to yield from her life’s story. Stories have been told of Martin’s selectiveness in the pieces she released. ‘The Moment’ managed to make it past a process described by her art dealer and friend; he told a story once of visiting one morning soon before Martin’s death, where “she beckoned me to come closer to the bed. She said, ’There are three new paintings in the studio. The one on the wall is finished and the two on the floor need to be destroyed.’”
More investigation into this narrative reveals she dealt with remarkable trials and difficulty, wrapping her life and career in a frame that reveals many lessons she had to learn, and pain she must have processed through while creating her iconic works defined by this scrutiny not only in her work itself, but in the number of works she gave to the world before her death.
Like the egg in her piece, some might resonate with the experience of growth from difficulty; refinement by fire; pruning for future heights. Viktor Frankl, a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist & author of Man’s Search for Meaning, illustrates this point in his description of his experience as a prisoner in a German concentration camp during World War II.
After several years enduring likely death and witnessing the death of friends & family, he wrote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” He theorized most who entered the camp would decide between life or death when first getting off the train, in their mindfulness of their higher calling, or resolve to look to something [someone] external to themselves. Tales of many who were his comrades in a wretchedly terrible time as the Holocaust were composed of those who experienced a synonymous pain – everybody was in the same camp. Though, he illustrated the stories of those who viewed the congested buildings and horrible working conditions as an incubator for learning that which could only be learned in the circumstances they’d been forced into. Many, if looking at ‘The Moment,’ could have erased the bottom lines of their life’s egg in warranted expectation for future demise, however some seized the lines they had left to embrace the principle antithesis to the Third Reich: love.
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
Today, we’re invited as Martin and Frankl were, to observe the fruits of incubation with heat, and refinement from the furnaces we all at some time step into of pain, inconvenience and unexpected turns of events. The truth is, we cannot learn if not pressed, or move forward if not stretched. To all who don’t have a well composed life free of obstacles, let’s celebrate an opportunity unique to those who experience pain, which is all of us: this is your time for embracing the ‘small path’ Jesus spoke of, which is filled with thorns, logs to climb over and a few missing trailheads. The ‘greatest of these’ principles which we learn is that which allows us to love others well.
When experiencing troubling times, we cannot afford to exist in ivory towers. To be brought low means to assume a position level with others around you. The principle we learn from experiences like these is empathy; this principle is what is described in Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
When experiencing difficulty, we at last walk in one another’s shoes, and down each other’s paths, like sitting on a bench looking at another person’s ‘The Moment.’ This might be why Jesus, when saying, “I came to seek and save the lost [the beggars, thieves and tax collectors],” lived like the poor, the brokenhearted and untouchables.
When a rich young man came to Jesus and asked to live as he did, Jesus told him to sell all he had. Perhaps what he was asking was for the young man to experience the lives of those who needed help. After all, Jesus said, “It is not the healed who need a doctor, but the sick.”
We see even today that some considerable problems in our societies are from those who are privileged not being able to see from the windows of the marginalized and non-privileged. In some ways, then, the logic follows that incubators of difficult times are the medium by which we leave our own window to stand in front of another’s. Someone like Viktor Frankl might not have been able to write something like ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ without being in the same camp as those he wrote about, and Martin might not have made the type of work like ‘The Moment’ without her own experience with mental illness. By climbing into incubators like these, we grow in a way unique to the heat inside them.
In responding to difficulty well, we grow into our purpose. If we believe that which happens has been purposed to happen, we then may believe there is a lesson to be had in each circumstance like this not only for us, but for others. Today, our invitation reads as Jesus’s read when he gave it to the Israelites: “Love God & Love Others.” Love comes from empathy, and empathy from experience; experience lends perspective – our chance to look out the window of another. Like Martin & Frankl, our life purpose lies beneath the miles of the ‘small path.’ Will you walk it well?
The results of the heat is beauty refined by fire, and a shine uncovered anew which tells a story not racked with ease, but of peace. In the incubator, we encounter the next step & proceeding clue as to who we actually are. That which is removed through refinement is composed of self-preservation, pride, & well worn floors in front of our own windows. Instead, principles delivered through walking through difficulty as Martin and Frankl did; as well as Job & Syrian refugees; the homeless & the down-trodden; come to produce practices of the privileged helping the marginalized, the rich man giving ‘all that he had,’ and conversations between those who would never otherwise live on the same side of the tracks. To end, here’s one by Frankl:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”