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Small acts that sustain us – Financial Times

‘The Breakdown’ (1940-41) by William H Johnson © Smithsonian American Art Museum

For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to put my finger on the heavy weight that some days seems lodged somewhere in my stomach, and on other days in my chest. Most of us can relate to this feeling. For some, like me, it’s currently being triggered by the seemingly nonstop global tragedies and injustices; for others, it could be anxiety over paying bills or a bad relationship that we feel powerless to improve. It could also be a result of not knowing how to find reprieve from a deep personal pain or grief we’re harbouring.

Some psychologists say that the feeling of helplessness we experience after repeated life stressors or trauma is actually learnt. That if we face an onslaught of difficulties, which seem to happen through no fault of our own, we start to believe that we lack agency in determining how our lives turn out, and we’re tempted to give up trying. Sometimes the effect is that we withdraw emotionally from circumstances and events, and lack the motivation to even consider small ways within our control that may help alleviate or change whatever it is we are going through.

This may all be true to some extent, but it also makes it sound a little like we’re to blame for our sense of helplessness — a thought that doesn’t help anyone. So I have been wondering instead what resources we might have within and around us that could help us deal with this feeling. The first step to me always seems to be acknowledging the reality of a problem. There are then multiple ways to consider how we respond to that reality.

The painting “Summer Morning II”, by 48-year-old Korean artist Dongwook Suh, was made in 2021 and it seems to me to represent much of what many of us have felt in recent times. A young shirtless man lies alone in a twin bed facing a wall socket into which various devices are plugged. His bare, narrow back is hunched forward, closing up his personal space even more. Lower down on the bed is an open laptop, but we can’t see what he’s watching, if anything. This is an image of someone with access to the world at their fingertips yet, ironically, disengaged from the external world.

Behind him on the edge of the bed by a lighter, is a little envelope and a mobile phone. Symbols of communication, and yet the figure seems almost painfully alone. The palette of whites, lavender and rose, teal green and yellow, makes the space in the room feel soft, unthreatening and familiar. But the narrow parameters of the image, the almost aerial perspective of the small bed and little nightstand, also evokes an air of vulnerability and intentional privacy. As viewers we are catching a glimpse of someone in a very vulnerable position at the start of a new morning. And the fact that he can’t see us makes him unprotected, and places some level of his safety in the viewer’s hands, our hands. I love this painting for all those reasons.

A person lies in bed, bare back towards us, facing away from the room but watching something on a laptop perched on the bed by the wall. A curtain is drawn aside, letting in sunlight, and on the bed lies a mobile phone
‘Summer Morning II’ (2021) by DongWook Suh © Courtesy of One and J Gallery, Seoul

It speaks to me of the sense of fatigue and helplessness that makes us want to close ourselves off from the world. I’m not sure there is anything wrong with admitting that, and even giving into it for a short spell. Time away from the internet, however we choose to spend it, can be a reprieve.

But the painting also reminds me, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, that there is a sense in which we are all ultimately alone, even with access to the world and surrounded by different ways to communicate with one another. To recognise that is also to acknowledge that we are ultimately responsible for how we deal with the events in our lives and in the world.

And yet, as we view this person who is unaware of us, the truth also remains that some element of our existence does lie in the hands of others. To remember that is to consider anew what our responsibilities might be to help each other simply as fellow humans.

The brightly coloured painting “The Breakdown”, by the early 20th-century American painter William H Johnson, is symbolic of how many of us cope with circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. A car loaded with belongings has broken down. The sun is setting; evening is approaching. An inopportune occurrence.

There’s an interesting overlap in this painting between faith and personal agency. The car has a cross as a hood ornament, and it is positioned directly in line with the sun’s horizon. At the roadside, the woman is bent at the knees with open hands. In the detail of the work, she is tending to a cooking fire, but it’s a posture that could be mistaken for prayer. With these symbols of faith, the couple in the picture are doing what they can to tend to the situation. The man is working underneath the car, and the woman is seemingly starting a meal to sate their hunger. Both are in precarious positions, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying to actively alleviate the stress of the situation.

When thinking about the resources we may turn to in difficulty, faith unfortunately seems less of a valuable resource for many people these days. For a variety of layered reasons, we live in an increasingly secular society. It used to be that many would naturally turn to a spiritual adviser, or the practices and tenets of a faith tradition, to find some sense of direction or support when questions and doubts occur.

Genuine faith must have room for such seasons. To question or doubt does not always equate to disbelief. It equates to being human. But there seem to be fewer and fewer institutions within our collective social-religious-political systems where people feel a sense of trust, that their care and best interests are held, and where their honest emotions can be received.

Part of why I am drawn to “The Breakdown” is because of its dual focus on the overlap of faith and action in our lives. In any given circumstance, to trust in and wait for divine support without also acting within our own abilities seems counterproductive and at times even offensive to the desire for change and transformation. Faith and action go hand-in-hand.

Sometimes the actions that sustain us in the face of helplessness, as we discern ways to move towards a better reality, are the minute and daily gestures that remind us of the beauty and gift of being human and alive despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I am smitten by the 1973 work “Sandy and Her Husband” by the American painter, textile artist and printmaker Emma Amos. The artist, who died in 2020, was renowned for her range of abstract and figurative works addressing identity, race, sexuality and gender. But this painting is a tender and evocative portrayal of the power of intimacy to sustain us, nourish us, strengthen us, in essence to gird us for life in this world.

A woman in a long purple dress dances cheek to cheek with a man in a 1970s living room with a zebra-patterned rug
‘Sandy and Her Husband’ (1973) by Emma Amos © Adam Reich; courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

A woman and her husband hold one another and dance in their living room. The colours in the painting are warm greens, browns and mustards, with splashes of primary colours, like vibrant accents to a warm, cherished life. On the wall is another famous Amos painting called “Flower Sniffer” (1966), which shows a young woman indulging in the simple but life-enhancing act of smelling flowers. In “Sandy and Her Husband”, the couple stands cheek-to-cheek with eyes closed, lost in their own sense of time. Though lovers, there is a tenderness to their embrace that transcends a purely sexual connection. It suggests deep care, the kind that commits to a journeying together through joys and triumphs.

That sort of commitment is not limited to marriages, and can be invaluable in all sorts of different configurations of relationships. The point is that our accessibility to receiving care and intimacy, and our availability to giving it, can be transformative in how we deal with challenges and feelings of helplessness. We are indeed one another’s keepers, and keeping each other well is an accumulation of small communions and intentional intimacies, and of little mercies and graces that all strengthen us over time, enabling us to bear both the deep beauty and the deep burden of living.

Enuma Okoro is a writer, speaker and columnist for FT Life & Arts. Email her at [email protected]

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