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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

A Test to Measure How Nice You Are

If a proverbial Martian were to try to understand life on earth by studying Western art, they would be likely to come away thinking that human beings spend the majority of their time sitting on horses, posing on thrones or worshipping an infant in the lap of a bejewelled young woman surrounded by angels. Aristocratic and religious themes dominate the picture-making of the last 2,000 years.

So it’s odd and touching when we occasionally stumble on something very different, like – for example – a painting by the unknown English artist Harold Gilman, who in 1912 showed us his wife Grace at their home in Letchworth near London in the act of writing a shopping list. We’re not sure what she was jotting down, but the household had three children in it at the time, so there was bound to have been a fair amount of milk, probably some eggs and maybe a few more of those apples one can see in the bowl on the left.

Harold Gilman, The Shopping List, 1912

However majestic human existence sometimes is, the truth is that we collectively spend much of our time on the shopping, the dry cleaning, and the fixing of bits of the house that keep dropping off or breaking down. And when we’re not taken up with such matters, we are liable to be doing equally bathetic things like arranging photos, reading bedtime stories, lying in the bath thinking about an ex we knew from school or worrying that we might have offended someone on a call at work.

And yet a basic shame appears to hold us back from acknowledging the building blocks of our lives, as if we couldn’t bear to see ourselves as we are in all our sublime pettiness and ordinariness. We talk incessantly about politics and wars, glamour and fame, scandals and scientific breakthroughs. But we miss the distinctive heroism at play in keeping a household going, in trying to raise a new generation, in working through our arguments and misunderstandings, in attempting to remain somewhat sane, peaceful and good, despite the call of folly, rage, regret and longing. 

We should be grateful to the odd artist confident enough of their reality to return us elegantly to ourselves, and through whose work the settings and themes of our lives don’t have to seem insignificant or absurd.

It’s a good sign if someone gets Gilman’s minor masterpiece: it suggests they’ll probably know how to look after people, they’ll probably not take themselves too seriously; they may remember what you need. Odds are that they’ll be that most significant of things: quite a nice person. 

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