'Self Portrait with Love and Death' by Hans Thoma 1875
These are two amazing self portraits by Hans Thoma. I enjoy looking at both pieces together rather than each in isolation. Alone they capture who he is at a fixed point in time, together they reveal his journey from one stage in life to another. It is not only his appearance that has altered, he is a different person to who he once was. In the later image he gazes directly at the viewer, confident and assertive. In the earlier image he appears to be taken slightly off guard by love and death, which are arguably two of the most important aspects of life. The paintings reveal a man at two different stages of self knowledge.
I stay by her side. She complains about life and she finds fault with the relationship. Her smile only ever appears for a moment and I consider all the ways I could invite its return. I listen for clues of how to create a smile. I wonder if it is deep within her and I hope to summon it into the world. I question what it takes to make her happy, while admitting that I don't hold the answer. Whenever I make a mistake she reveals her wings, but she does not fly away. She stretches them out, while her words describe her flight. She does not need me. I feel as though I have a full picture of all that I am not. I know every inadequacy and limitation. She has a clear vision of how she wants things to be and I feel incapable of fulfilling her requirements. I try everything to please her, the smile never lasts. I am always a conversation away from seeing her wings. I constantly fool myself into believing that my next attempt will make her happy but it never does. I question if she knows what happiness is. She seems to constantly ask for the temporary fix.
She is showing me her wings again. I can see them clearly and they are beautiful. Every feather is in place. I imagine their soft touch as she brushes past me, yet still she does not fly away. She is looking beyond me. She looks deep into the distance and with a superficial glance she gazes at the life she desires. I don't know how I am still in this relationship. She is distant, yet she does not fly away. I try to change this circumstance into the life that she desires. Each attempt is accompanied by our mutual dissatisfaction. I do not know how to please her; she is always looking beyond me.
I am coming to believe less of myself. Every moment we are together is a reminder that I am not desired. When I place each kiss I know that it touches only her skin. She will take my kisses but she does not prize them. I wonder how many people she would prefer to be with; how far down the list is my name. Is it just because I am here and nothing more?
I look at myself in the mirror and I ask myself what I need to change. I stand there crying and naked. For a moment I see myself through her gaze and I am filled with sorrow. There are so many things I cannot change. There is so much that she does not love. I do not want to see myself through her eyes. Am I to believe that I am nothing? I look deep into my heart and I know that I am more than she believes me to be. Her heart is empty and it clouds her vision. I have tried so hard to fill it with my presence, but still I cannot see myself within it. I cannot find the entrance and I have made the attempt time and time again. This mirror betrays me it does not reveal all I have given and all that I have loved. I feel tired and defeated. I am crippled by the strength of her perception, I sometimes believe it to be true. I ask myself if I am worthless and with each kiss, it is her who answers the question. She does not have to say a word; I know that she does not think of me when she closes her eyes.
I begin to ask myself why I stay. As I ask the question, feathers begin to form behind me. I can only stay if I accept how she views me. I would need to believe that I am not enough. I watch my wings as they take form. I look at them in the mirror, as I stretch them out wide. I will not constantly show them to you. I am not asking you to change because I accept you as you are. I decide to take flight and I do. As you see me in the distance, do not imagine me to be anything other than I am.
It is such a thoughtful gift. The label states this is a helper in a bottle. The sender explains how they should help and then the receiver simply opens the bottle. I read the instructions fully before I release my tiny hero. As I remove him from the bottle he begins to yell. There is a massive list of instructions on how to improve my life. I question how this is supposed to help but I listen to the tiny police officer, as he talks of fixing my life. I smile because I can see the good intentions of the sender but I do not require a miniature life manager. He begins to wag his finger, as he explains the acts I should take. I listen to the world's tiniest authority as I begin to tire. I wonder how to put him back in the bottle. I wonder why I let him out. I try to talk but he does not listen. He tells me that he already has full instructions on how to help. This doesn't even resemble help, it seems distant from useful assistance.
I tell him that my life is fine and I point to the blue skies and sunshine that surrounds me. He ignores me and talks only of the rain clouds. Perhaps on some days I do the same. As he continues to speak I begin to appreciate my cute little hero. He is misguided but he delivers a good heart and I can see it shine through this tiny little man. However, if I listened to his suggestions the consequences would be dire. The life he suggests is ill suited and constraining. I know I've made bad decisions. I know I will do the same again, but they are my mistakes to make. How will I grow and learn if I don't get to face the lessons I need. It is my decisions that will lead me to where I need to be, I don't require anything else.
I feel as though my authority is strong and I tell him to return to the bottle. He refuses and tells me that I must send him to someone else. He requires instructions on how to help them, without it I will not see him within the glass. I explain that I don't know how to help. He looks at me puzzled and a little shocked but I feel ill equipped to give a better explanation. I tell him that help means something different depending on who you are. It is not for others to decide what you need. When it comes to your own life, you are the greatest authority. The help that you give another will always need to be restrained, because there must always be space for them to make their own decisions without manipulation or pressure. You can't know what is best for another person; you can only understand your own needs and desires. You cannot believe that everyone's needs and desires will be the same as your own. As I speak I hope that he understands my words. I recognize that I have made his job a million times harder and I worry for him, as I return him to the bottle.
He sits within the glass and he takes out a small book. I catch a glimpse of the writing it says, 'teach her to find a path that is appropriate for who she is'. He ticks the corresponding box, to show the task is complete. I feel as though I have been manipulated into defending my own path and voicing my own needs. Then I smile as I realize the importance of what I have learned. I thank him for his help and I send him on his way.