Fight For Your Life

The most memorable thing about our visit to Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum wasn’t Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” or even Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”. It was the giant post-it notes, stuck haphazardly on the walls. Everywhere.

Written on the notes was text from Alain de Botton and John Armstrong — philosopher and art historian, respectively — that challenged patrons to use the museum’s works as a magnifying glass on the self-inflicted cuts that tear away at the joy of everyday life.

It was deep, y’all.

Walking through the galleries, the four of us struggled against our collective desire to yank the papers off the wall and bring them home with us.

Thankfully, the gift shop sold a compilation called “Art as Therapy” that saved me from petty theft and possible detention in security.

The way the book is put together, each page displays a painting, lists a “sickness” of modern life, then analyzes how this particular painting addresses that malaise. The format lends itself to daily introspection, so hubby and I read a page each night. A little dream fodder before drifting off to sleep.

The following passage felt like a punch in the throat, written directly to me, its message continuously floating in and out of my mind for days now:

Art as Therapy

Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft, 1649, Pieter Jansz Saenredam

The architects of the building depicted here, and the artist himself, were convinced about a challenging idea: if you want to get close to the important things, you will need a lot of calm, of whiteness, of emptiness, of peace. Serenity, concentration and order aren’t luxuries, they aren’t a superficial concern for a particular style of interior decoration; they are preconditions for a thoughtful, balanced life. The picture sends a slightly stern, but welcome message: you have to fight off distraction, it can ruin your life; you have to prioritize ruthlessly; entertainment is the enemy; simplify, get rid of what you don’t really need; don’t check your email all the time; focus is an achievement. Saenredam didn’t just paint a church, he painted an attitude to life.

Fight off distraction.

Prioritize ruthlessly.


Don’t check your freaking email all the time.

Since reading that entry, I have torn through the house, discarding any clutter that fills me with dread. I suddenly feel free to let go of things I’ve held onto for decades only for sentiment’s sake. If it’s not used or appreciated regularly, it’s in the donation pile, which is now taking on a life of its own in the guest room.

To play on Facebook or to enjoy a cup of coffee with my husband, with whom I will spend too few precious minutes on this Earth? Guess which one wins the priority contest.

And giving myself permission to focus on one task before being assaulted by eight others? Feels downright decadent.

Traveling has a habit of giving me a fresh perspective on the world outside my door. What a nice change of pace for it to turn the tables on the world inside too.

Hear Alain de Botton’s TED talk about defining personal success. 

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