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Art as Therapy: Love


Problem: Saying I’m OK when I’m not really.
This picture shows us The Lady of Shalott, the heroine of a poem by the most successful British poet of the 19th century, Alfred Lord Tennyson. The story is set in the Middle Ages. The Lady spends her days living alone and isolated in her castle. The world goes by outside, but she stays indoors. She doesn’t participate. She doesn’t join in. She lives “in the shadows.” We might not actually live in a lonely castle, but the idea is powerful, because it stands for a feeling of missing out that haunts so many lives.

She has been on her own too long. She has plenty to do, but she still feels unfulfilled. Today she might be cooped up in the finance department. Outside her window, life is going on. Other people are setting out on adventures, falling in love, making this happen, making a difference. Yet she is afraid. What will happen if she goes out into the sunshine, if she breaks her isolation? To others these might seem like easy things. But not to her.

Frustration and disappointment are embarrassing. We are supposed to be successful. And sometimes the sheer pain of admitting distress can lead us into denial: “I’m fine, honestly.” Pain and psychological suffering may be inescapable parts of life, but works such as this one treat our sorrows with dignity. They try to lessen the personal sting by showing how others have been in similar situations, and they add a layer of sympathy. The Lady of Shalott is not an idiot or a fool. She is simply unlucky in her situation. Disappointment is normal. Self-knowledge is valuable even when it hurts.


Problem: Difficulty remembering why we ever got together.
They are so in love and it’s easy to see why. They are having such a good time with each other: teasing and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes. It seems a bit too good to be true, if we imagine it as telling us the whole truth about relationships. Of course, the troubles come along. There are worries about career, disagreements about how to furnish an apartment, fury at what might look to other people like tiny things. One day she will turn coldly on him for not cleaning his clogs before coming indoors; in time, he will get irked by how much she spends at the fruit shop.

But that’s not the point. This picture is a reminder of how most relationships start — two people in love with each other. Later on, when they are a bit sick of their relationship, they should look back on this image and refresh their sense of why, after all, they do love each other. The love has not disappeared — it has only been hidden by the normal distractions and frustrations of life.


Problem: Thinking my ideal age range is 25–32.
This woman used to be strong and decisive; she had lovers once; she put her makeup on carefully and set out with a quiet thrill in the evening. Now she’s hard to love and maybe she knows this. She gets irritated, and she withdraws. But she needs other people to care for her.

Anyone can end up here, and there are moments when a lot of people — at whatever stage of life — are a bit hard to admire or like. Love is often linked to admiration: we love because we find another person so exciting and attractive. But there’s another aspect to love in which we are moved precisely by the needs of the other, through generosity. Tully is generous to her. The artist looks with great care into this woman’s face and wonders about who she really is.


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