There is no one right way to move through life. Being the kinds of creatures we are, we encounter difficulty, grief, and excitement. Through all of it, we can shape who we choose to become through the joys and the hardships. My latest sculpture The Hill of Indulgence is a piece about what it means to be human and to embody the crests and falls of our lives. This sculpture illustrates one iteration of this journey: the figure is not stepping hesitantly, or carefully down the stone. Rather, he descends and ascends with a carefree levity. This is not an estranged wanderer or one frozen by heartbreak; he is free, he is embracing, and he is willing.
The delight we see on his face with his chin upturned, hand and leg swinging, portrays our figure as undisturbed by whatever gorge might await him at the bottom of the mountain. The figure might remind us of the archetypal Fool that appears in many spiritual teachings. In the traditional Tarot, this is the first card of the Major Arcana, one that symbolizes beginnings, hope, inexperience, and folly. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung describes the child, symbolized by the Fool, as a “potential future” in the sense that failures and attempts eventually lead the Fool to experience that results in character development. In the journey of the Major Arcana, the Fool goes through life—through stages of power, mystery, authority, uncertainty, sacrifices, ignorance, release, and rebirth—to finally end at the World archetype, integrating all of his parts and reaching wholeness.
While the figure on The Hill of Indulgence is full of hope and folly, he is distinct from the Fool because he is also pregnant with experience. Here childlike wonder meets the wisdom earned through obstacles faced and vanquished. If we take a closer look at his skin and his face, we can see that experience on display—worn away by time, just like the jagged rock supporting him, every pit and wrinkle counting the grains of sand through the hourglass. The figure might have experienced a rift in his life; gradually fading away, facing tragedy and obligation. And yet, the body language of the figure demonstrates a sense of indulgence as he meets the moment.
In the crossfire of what life has to offer us, one does not always end up embodying relentless optimism. Much like the steep scarp below us, life is a circular sequence of sideways, detours, shifts, trap doors, temptations, and digressions—and our figure is no stranger to these. One future might have been that of a haggard, tired elder-seated in a rocking chair, slumped, even collapsed.
We might ask why the character seems to have escaped this fate. Those who whither into old age are often touched by a period of mourning, one that can arrest the motion of an active, dynamic life. If Jung describes the child as a “potential future,” the elderly person is staring at a future flame that is slowing burning out. Grief and tragedy can activate the “shadow” side of our personality. On the other hand, tragedy and grief can expand our vision. Individuals who can find a sense of personal meaning and purpose even within a period of mourning develop a deeper understanding of themselves, gain wisdom, and cultivate resilience. The transformational process of loss brings us into contact with awe, with wonder, with the true nature of infinity. When we can touch the eye of the storm in the midst of grief, we can avoid the path of repression and despondency. Those of us who are brave enough to look infinity in the eye transform not into a victim of tragedy, but into the protagonist of the sacred comedy of life.
Like Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, whose relentless pursuit of the whale symbolizes his metaphysical confrontation with the infinite, we each learn to understand and conquer the mysteries of existence in our own way. Such a confrontation—or, as I prefer to think of it, a dance—with infinity challenges our values and our choices, and it is this very challenge that anchors and grounds us. Unlike Captain Ahab, when we embrace our dance with infinity, steering away from obsession and its negative consequences, we can confront the prospect of the eternal return with our chins held high and a jaunty grin.
Facing the infinite with an open curiosity instead of a paralyzing fear is the vital indulgence of human optimism. Why indulgent? Realists would insist that optimism feeds the ego. It is the product of a soul yearning to see the glass as half full. But this indulgence is vital to seeing beauty, feeling true joy, and escaping the doldrums that plague many. Optimism, then, is not indulgent in any traditional sense. It is a practice, not something we are born with. But fortunately, it can be learned. Indeed, it may be our life’s mission to figure out how to fully embrace this choice.
So, what of the figure on the Hill of Indulgence? Long past the Fool’s initial sojourn, he knows that whether the bottom of the hill brings grief, joy, or banality, he must accept whatever it is—ah, the sweet solace of acceptance. When we do not allow life’s various terrains to harden our hearts, we open ourselves to the impossible: to delight, connection, and acceptance. The protagonist careening down the hill is spirited. The Fool embraces whatever comes next—not out of a sense of obligation or reckless ignorance. That’s the subtle, windswept irony of this figure. He’s actually the wisest of all because he knows life is illogical, and this is the miracle.
Being able to meet the vicissitudes of life with awe in the face of the infinite and love of the laughable carves new lines into our matrix. The sun rises and sets with the crests of the best and worst days of our life; embracing it all—touching on what it means to know infinity—this figure meets the abyss with airiness and an open heart. Leading with his chest, tossing behind him all that has passed, he does not collapse under the weight of mourning but embraces all that is before him.