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Everybody Has Questions

Gauguin's "Three Questions"

by Glenn Stanton

This lonely artist had made up his mind. Today was the day he would end it all for good.

He climbed the dense, tropically-wooded hill behind his Tahitian hut, more alone than he had ever felt before. He’d spent most of his life in loneliness—intentionally, some would say, for he was the only one who’d ever really mattered to him.

He took nothing with him on this short trip up the hill but his ever-pressing load of despair and a small tin of arsenic. His was a life of crushing debt, depression, emptiness and debilitating disease, much of it the result of his world-class arrogance and unchecked sexual appetite. Desolation and failure would be his legacy.

Paul Gauguin had become a hopelessly pitiful man. He’d failed to achieve meaningful success as a painter in his lifetime. He’d abandoned his wife and children. He alienated every friend he ever had.

He’d come to Tahiti in search of human purity, the authentic life untouched by the poisons of modernity, conventionality, greed and power. He’d taken a “wife/servant” for himself in this paradise—a tall, dark-haired girl, perhaps 13 years old.

Gauguin subsisted on the rare and meager financial gifts that arrived from the mainland, in answer to his many begging and bitter letters home. His children never wrote their father. His wife did so only rarely.

Now he had come to the end.

Just days before, he’d completed one last painting, intended as his final testament to the world. He’d described its philosophical ambition to a friend as “comparable to that of the gospel” without the slightest appreciation of this ridiculous overstatement.

Yet the greatest meaning of the painting was found not in the images depicted, but in the title. It captured three of the most searching questions any human can ponder, and they appear in the section of gold in the upper left-hand corner. In French, as Gauguin wrote them, they were as follows:

D’ Ou’ venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou’ allons-nous?

In English, they are :

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

gauguin Where are We Going

And now, having finished his greatest work, Gauguin walked up the wooded hill and swallowed all the arsenic in the tin to make sure it accomplished its dark task. Finally he lay down, intending to sleep and never to awake in this life.

But even in this last existential act, the artist failed. He ingested too much arsenic, causing him to violently vomit the poison before it could take effect. He managed to find his way back down the hill—and to suffer a few more years of failure and emptiness. He would die at the early age of 54, his body appearing far older than it was, ravaged by poor diet, alcohol abuse and syphilis.

So why are these particular questions significant and what do they have to do with our exploration in The Family Project? Let’s look at them more closely:

  1. Where do we come from? asks What is the source of our being?
  2. What are we? wants to know What is our nature? What are we made for?
  3. Where are we going? probes What’s our destiny? What is our existence and   everything else moving toward?

Gauguin’s questions are significant because they represent perhaps the biggest questions that each of us ask, and often at earliest ages.

Gauguin’s questions are everyone’s questions.

Learn more about God’s irreplaceable design in The Family Project® – a 12-session DVD curriculum that explores why God’s plan for families matters today. Take your small group on a life-changing journey to strengthen and encourage families! Get The Family Project® curriculum today.

Glenn Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family, and the co-author/co-creator of The Family Project, as well as the co-author (w/Leon Wirth) of The Family Project book.

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