A Difficult Choice? You Decide.

NYC - MoMA: Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night

Say you were given the choice:

  1. Spend your life in obscurity, broke, unappreciated (even ridiculed), yet produce a work of art, or an invention, so brilliant but so ahead of it’s time that it’s only after your death (which is, of course, unpleasant) that you become famous. Not only is your brilliance recognized but it will be recognized for generations to come. Or… 

  2. Live out your life with no worries, plenty of money, perfectly happy, contributing nothing to this world that will have any lasting importance (including children who might be of any future importance) — but you die happy.


NOT A Wonderful Life.. but not bad.

Some of you will contend it’s impossible to have so little impact on the world. So let me explain that #2 choice is as unique as #1, in that if we were able to go back in time and make it so you never existed, it would make absolutely no difference to the world. Whoever you would have married, would end up marrying someone equally insignificant and they too would produce insignificant offspring. (This is NOT a wonderful life… but, it’s not bad.)


WHY am I pondering this? I recently read a paper and a short story about Vincent Van Gogh, the brilliant artist who created Starry Night. Van Gogh committed suicide having suffered terribly for years, both mentally and physically, from an undiagnosed disease. He died broke, his art unappreciated and ridiculed. It is said he couldn’t even trade a piece of his art for a dinner. And YET, he created Starry Night (as well as over 2000 other works of art), and to this day (over 120 years after his death) is one of the most famous and influential painters in the history of the world.

The choices I give you are extreme: making a huge difference, with a huge amount of suffering, or making zero (to little) difference, with zero pain. Most of us, given a 3rd choice, would choose something in between. We can take a little pain, knowing that even if our own accomplishments are small, maybe our children possess that spark which will make a difference in the world. But I’m not giving you a third choice, only two.

Which would you choose? And if you dare—WHY?


13 thoughts on “A Difficult Choice? You Decide.

  1. denisedthornton says:

    I’m going to dodge your question a little bit and say it doesn’t seem quite that black and white to me. For most of us who don’t live in a war torn or occupied country, we have a chance to respond to this question according to our time of life.
    When I was in my 20s, I would most certainly have answered, “Where Gogh goes — I go!” I was willing to endure a lot of risk and discomfort to learn about the world and act on what I learned.
    When I became a parent, I found myself making choices based on what was best for my children. I moved to the suburbs to be near what I perceived where the best schools and became a ‘plain-clothes hippie’ for a decade and a half.
    Now my children are young adults (and it their own Van Gogh period) I feel free to start to put my beliefs on the line again, pouring myself into a life style that will not make me rich and building a house that is a bit of a gamble with an outer-fringe green architect to show how it can be done and hopefully be a beacon to future sustainable building. Leaning how to protect a bit of the environment and grow food for my area sustainably.
    I’m not looking for comfort. I’m looking to make a difference.
    So I think one life can encompass both answers, and perhaps should.


    • Searcher says:

      Absolutely. The best answer is neither. That’s why the question is so difficult. (Notice I skirted the question too by not answering!) I think what got me pondering along these lines was a comment in something I read about a fellow artist who occasionally helped Van Gogh (financially). This artist was financially successful in his own lifetime, yet after years his death his art was ridiculed and ultimately forgotten. Of course, he did make an impact… he helped Van Gogh and therefore does not fit in option #2 either.


  2. Philip Goldberger says:

    I can only say the following.

    I hope I have what it takes to walk in the steps of Van Gogh.

    I fear I don’t have what it takes to walk in the steps of Van Gogh


    • Searcher says:

      So true, so true and like the rest of us (myself included) you could not answer the question! It’s a tough one because for, most of us, it’s a lose, lose situation. I’m curious to see more replies. 🙂


  3. T-Metz says:

    No pain, no gain. Van Gogh is much better off now than had he had zero impact. Imagine the karma he is managing from all of the positive impressions of his work. It’s not the personal association that is important, but the social benefits.

    Denise has it right—make a difference.


  4. Visionary says:

    This is actually a debate that’s close to my own heart. It’s theorized that Van Gogh was a schizophrenic. I’m also a schizophrenic, so it heartens me to see that someone else like me had such a great impact on the world, because I know for a fact I’m not an easy person to live with.

    I’ve noticed I already have the ridicule, the suffering that others talk about with Van Gogh. I’ve lived in poverty because, well, I have problems coping with reality. I’ve got very few people close to me because I just can’t tolerate them being around. I’ve got the suffering side down. Now I just need to figure out how to make my own lasting impact on society. I’m no artist, but maybe some day my poetry will have value, or my words, doubtful, but…

    In a heartbeat, I’d choose greatness that’s not of this lifetime. I don’t think I’d ever survive greatness in this lifetime, and I know I could certainly never live a life of having it all. I’d lose it as quickly as I gained it. Maybe I’m just meant to be a Van Gogh…


    • Searcher says:

      Your last paragraph is so insightful. Few, if any of us could handle greatness in this lifetime… without being corrupted by it, that is. Have no fear you will, and probably have already, made an impact. It is my greatest hope that in this lifetime we will come to regard mental illness in the same way we regard other illnesses, simply as something to be cured, if possible, and certainly without any stigma attached. Thank goodness, unlike Van Gogh, you have more options for treatment. Hang in there, I’m confident that even if Van Gogh had found a cure for whatever it was that ailed him, he would have continued to be great painter… and lived to leave us with even more of his genius.
      Thanks so much for responding.


      • Visionary says:

        The one problem I have with the options for treatment is that many of them aren’t such great options. Medications often mean that so much of the genius is lost. Medication can often lead to the feeling of being a zombie.

        That being said, some disorders are harder to treat than others without the use of medications. Would Van Gogh have lived longer today if he had the options we have now for treatment? Maybe he would have chosen to medicate, and maybe that would have worked for him, or maybe it would have destroyed the vision he had. Maybe he’d opt for talk therapy, and that could have helped. However, looking at the sad reality, many people, especially those with disorders like schizophrenia and bi-polar often go undiagnosed aside from in extreme cases, and those extreme cases sadly tend to slip through the cracks of society.

        So, we’re making progress, sure, but I’ve come to realize we’ve still got a long way to go!


        • Searcher says:

          Visionary, having your perspective on this has been wonderful. As with any illness we can only hope that the treatment gets better. We’ve certainly progressed in treating cancer, so why shouldn’t treatments for diseases that affect the mind not progress as well? That is the hope. I have a post I’ve been wanting to write, which I believe I will get around to and posting next Tuesday. It may interest you. 🙂 Here’s hoping your treatments improve and you get to pick option #3: a meaningful life in which your pain is offset by, if not a greater, then at least an equal amount of happiness.


  5. denisedthornton says:

    Good point, Visionary. I don’t actually think anyone can handle fame. For the best of folks, it’s a nuisance and an obstacle. For the rest of us it must be very corrupting.


  6. Allan Woodrow says:

    Interesting question. Which makes me ask — when we die do we have some state of consciousness or does it all go black? While this may sound self-centric, the truth is, if I make a difference I want to know about it. If I keel over tomorrow broke and miserable, and years later my actions make a difference … I’ll never know. If you can guarantee me now — die miserable. I’m all in. But really, living a miserable life and thinking it was miserable for no reason with no idea that anyone’s life is really better for it? I guess I’m not that generous. So unless I have a guarantee, I’ll take happiness. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

    In reality, many of us can’t be happy unless we’re trying to make a difference, so they are all interwoven, right?


    • Searcher says:

      Ah yes, if only we could know. But, of course, your last statement that “many of us can’t be happy unless we’re trying to make a difference,” is probably why I had such a difficult time choosing between the two. I can’t imagine being happy if I weren’t trying to make a difference. Which is why I would probably (knock on wood) pick #1. Since I believe in some sort of life after death, and possibly reincarnation (and karma), my choice has the built in comfort of believing I’ll come back and have a better lifetime next time around.


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