LtQ: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous – asked Paul Gauguin in the yellow splash at the top left of this painting from 1897.

There are no questionmarks; they are added in the English translation (the title of this post). In this it reminds me of Bruce Chatwin’s final book, titled “What Am I Doing Here”. The lack of a questionmark led some to think Chatwin was intending to tell the meaning of it all, or perhaps it was a typographical error. In fact, it was a decision arising from the cover design. But although the narratives within the covers shared Chatwin’s passion for living investigation, they never explicitly tackled the ‘question’ at all.

Gauguin’s painting is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which says: “In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents ‘the Beyond.’ The old woman at the far left, ‘close to death,’ accepts her fate with resignation.”

Through the symbolism in the painting, Gauguin invites the viewer in to contemplate the meaning of life. But perhaps our conclusions would differ from his. In a letter, he wrote of the painting: “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it”, and after completing it, he felt so convinced that the rest of his life would be unsuccessful that he attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. Yet the answer to his second question What are we? (similar to my first question Who am I?) has to be more than a sum total of our successes or failures. And in the end, “Living the questions” does involve living.

Living the Questions: What are we missing?

In the spirit of the last Living the question post, and inspired by a recent Facebook meme,

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

In 2007, the Washington Post organised a social experiment about people’s perception, taste, and priorities. At a metro station during the morning rush hour, for 45 minutes, the paper video-recorded the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell playing six classical masterpieces on his Stradivarius… and the responses of the passers by.

The Post had contingency plans to deal with crowds, but in the event only six people stopped and stayed for a while. A few more gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. When Bell finished playing, it was only to silence; no one applauded.

Only the passing children responded without fail, until their parents pulled them away.

And so the Post asked two questions: “what about [people’s] ability to appreciate life?” and “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?”

One of the six that stopped had listened to a street musician for the first time in his life. He said: “it made me feel at peace”. Another said: “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


Living the Questions: Why is the sky blue?

xkcd: Sky ColorThis is partly an excuse to feature an xkcd cartoon, going some way towards answering the question. But it is really about why we stop asking why.

The cartoon science mom (it’s a US blog) could probably identify with those parents driven up the wall by their children:

But why…?
But why…?

Now children don’t usually ask so many questions in order to exasperate their parents. So why do they?

I’m no expert, but a bit of googling suggests: they are gathering knowledge, trying to get at explanations and the truth about things; their minds are expanding quickly; it is one of the most important strategies they have for connecting with their caregivers; they are actively learning about their world, and starting to understand that there’s a reason for almost everything (recent work has suggested that children can grasp causality from as early as age 3); sheer curiosity; and how after all are they going to know unless they ask? Because that is why ALL of us ask questions.

Unfortunately, most of the questions we ask are no longer why? but where? who? how? what? and most perniciously when? (Actually, how? is not too bad.) Even worse, some of us may have stopped asking questions altogether.

Maybe we no longer have the time, or the curiosity or the sense of wonder. Or we have become cynical and are pretending we are all grown-up. Maybe gathering knowledge and making connections are no longer fun, or are seen as the province of geeks. But any good scientist, any creative person, anyone serious about personal growth or making the world a better place… never stops asking why. And why not you and me?

One of our TEDxExeter 2013 speakers is Camilla Hampshire from RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. If you have got out of the habit of asking why, and you have a child to hand, why not research the questions you don’t know how to answer together? RAMM might be a good place to start. If you are feeling adventurous, you don’t even need a child.

The sky behind all those clouds isn’t always blue, of course. There can be various explanations for other colours, such as air pollution or dust storms like this amazing storm in Sydney in 2009. And as with many old sayings, there is also some truth in:

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,
Red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning.

Find out why here.


[Updated] More tickets released

Update on 18 January: We are now sold out again, but please note that we may be able to release some more tickets closer to the day when we have clarified sponsors’ and participants’ requirements. As ever, please keep an eye on our Twitter feed.

10 January: You may have thought we were SOLD OUT! But no, 25 Standard tickets have just been released! Grab them fast, they’ll probably be gone by tomorrow!