Last week, as I was wandering through the American paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I entered a room with four large paintings, each more than four feet high and six feet wide—all painted in 1842 by the same artist, Thomas Cole. Collectively called “The Voyage of Life,” the four paintings in the series are an allegory of the four stages of a man’s (this is the nineteenth century, after all) life: “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age.” Painted in the exquisite detail of the Hudson River School, a river representing the journey of life is at the center of each painting. Just to make sure you understand the allegory, Cole wrote a commentary to accompany each painting.
The third painting of the series, “Manhood,” took my breath away. This artist’s creation captured exactly what I felt when I heard the words, “you have a nasty cancer.”
Writing in the florid language of the 19th century, Cole describes the meaning of this painting: “Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career…The boat is there, plunging amid the turbulent waters. The voyager is now a man of middle age: the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven, as if heaven’s aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him.”
The detail that struck me the hardest was that the tiller of the boat with which the young man was steering so confidently in the preceding picture, “Youth,” is now missing. The man is kneeling, completely at the mercy of the roiling waters, as the boat is about to enter the rapids cascading to the ocean below. For me, the missing tiller symbolizes the loss of control over my life that I felt when I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Before then, I was sure my hand was securely on the tiller, ensuring that my life would go exactly as I had planned. And now that tiller—that control–had been wrenched away by disease. Cole’s point is stark: it’s not just that the man’s hand is off the tiller; it’s that the tiller itself has completely disappeared. That’s what my cancer did: it ripped off the helm that I had used to direct my life, my careers, my destiny, and tossed it overboard, lost forever in the boiling rapids.
For me, the missing tiller said it all: control was a youthful illusion. With cancer, I was tillerless, at the mercy of the unpredictable rapids in the river of life.
A Question of Control
We baby boomers have done everything possible to make sure our hand not only stays on the tiller, but perhaps unlike earlier generations, we have tried to weld the tiller firmly to our allegorical boat. Through our obsession with youth, health, and longevity, we firmly believe we will be the first generation to keep that tiller of control firmly in place, confidently steering through the rapids of life’s difficulties as we age.
So, the question becomes: is Cole right about losing control? Or is he simply 170 years out of date? Technology has bettered and extended our lives since 1842. We’re certainly traveling a longer river to Cole’s ocean, representing the peace of death. But can we maintain our grip on the direction of our lives until we come to the end of our voyage? Can we tame forces–like cancer–that in Cole’s world were beyond a man’s control? Is adult life truly as unpredictable as he illustrates it to be?