“Scratchy” best describes the antique Pendleton blanket draped across my pajama-clad legs.
The caw caw caw of crows echoes in the distance, and there is hovering lake fog where cool air marries warm lake water.
My hot mug of coffee in hand, on the old lake porch for the last time. It was sweet sorrow as I sat nestled in the womb of quiet as the distant loons and the jumping fish performed one last time to say farewell for the season … not “goodbye,” but “see you next year” … if it’s God’s will.
In stark, face-slapping contrast, my blanket is replaced by the thumping of a ceiling fan on the back porch, trying to stay cool in the oven they call Austin, where we returned last night after a drawn-out drive seeing Niagara Falls, the cornfields of Indiana, and the friendships of a life well lived.
“Contrast” best describes this Sunday versus the last. Cool versus hot, rich pine greens versus dry scrub oaks. Each beautiful in its own unique way.
Contrast, as it turns out, is another gift of life. My quiet summers on an Adirondack lake would be less sweet without the contrast of my insanely busy life managing kids, schedules, travel, and business.
Why Do We Suffer?
People often ponder the question of why we have to suffer or struggle. Contrast provides the answer. How else can we appreciate what we had before the hard moments, or what we have when the hard times are over?
Moments of joy are amplified and more spectacular when they are appreciated in contrast with the struggles of life.
Though no one seeks or wants trouble, embracing it for the contrast it provides somehow makes struggle easier.
When I teach painting, people naturally want the fastest solutions and instant ability … yet my own success is sweeter knowing I’ve overcome many of the struggles after two decades of learning and more to come. For my artist friends, it’s the struggle that creates the breakthroughs.
After going on one of our art trips to Russia, my friend artist Scott Christensen told me he was not sure he could ever paint again after seeing the great Russian masterworks in person. He struggled for months, unsure he could ever be satisfied again. In spite of wanting to give in and give up, he powered through, only to have the biggest breakthrough in his painting career.
Contrast is a powerful motivator. As a young man struggling to make a living, I had to get sick of only being able to afford to eat peanut butter sandwiches to become motivated and figure out how to solve my financial crisis.
When I started my business, I had gone without a paycheck for seven years and come moments away from losing my car, my business, and my house. The contrast with the sweet moment of that first small paycheck made me appreciate that milestone more.
The tragic loss of a marriage made me appreciate love once I found it.
My friends who have lost everything in a fire or a hurricane eventually appreciate little things more once they’ve come back from having nothing.
With so much focus on what we want or what we don’t have, looking back at where we once were provides contrast to appreciate where we are.
The Cycle of Growth
Contrast is why it’s important to embrace change and avoid being stagnant. Change provides discomfort, and discomfort provides growth — while offering contrast.
Four seasons provide contrast. It’s hard to appreciate spring without winter.
Aging helps us appreciate wisdom, in contrast to the inexperience of youth.
If you pause for a moment and ponder your toughest moments, can you see the contrast?
If you are living through tough moments right now, you have my sympathy, yet contrast will come and sweetness will return.
A Sad Day
Last week I experienced my first birthday without the phone calls and cards from my mother. It was my saddest birthday ever, yet the contrast it provided made my time with my dad and family members on my birthday so much sweeter, reminding me how precious these times are.
And being at the lake alone, just me and my son Brady, made me miss the joyful energy of having my wife and the other kids around. Yet that same contrast gave me precious time one-on-one with Brady, including a road trip halfway across America, creating a lifetime memory for us both.
In Chinese culture, they speak of the yin and the yang, while for us it’s the positive and the negative. It’s heaven versus hell. Dark versus light. Sad versus happy. Tears versus smiles. Hot versus cold. Love versus hate. Sunrises versus sunsets. Success versus failures. One cannot exist without the other.
The world is filled with victims. “Why is this happening to me?” they say. Yet there would be no more victims if they would understand that the brightest light comes after the darkest hours. That the cycle of life requires dark and light. That you can’t enjoy sweet success without hard times.
Embrace the contrast.
PS: Scott Christensen will share his breakthroughs at the 2020 Plein Air Convention & Expo next May in Denver. We’ve sold out two hotels and exceeded the last convention’s registration significantly, and are likely to sell out soon. I hope you’ll join us.