How Children's Drawings Make Sense of Suffering

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Fr. Joseph Gleason

We are all like children learning to draw, perplexed by the shadows. We start off with simple shapes and colors, thinking that we actually draw the world as we see it. But our first representations of the world look flat, blocky, and without depth. Our art has an innocent beauty of its own — the sort of beauty which usually ends up behind a refrigerator magnet.

Part of the reason we paint our lives as we do, is because we fail to consider what critical changes light sources have upon what we see. The angle and brightness of light affects the hues of objects themselves, to be sure. But even more importantly, the location of the light determines the placement of the shadows. When the sun is high in the sky at midday, many shadows are like moles — barely visible, fearing to poke their dark noses more than a few inches out of the ground. But at sunset, even the smallest objects cast impossibly long shadows upon the earth. Thus the very same set of objects, viewed at different times of day, present pictures which vastly differ from one another.

Once we think about the artistic importance of shadows — once someone points it out — this truth seems quite obvious and even self-evident. But to a novice child artist, such thoughts rarely come naturally. That is why most drawings on family refrigerators are free of shadows. The innocence of youth is content to portray the sun as a yellow circle and a family as a collection of smiling stick figures. This same youthful innocence can be oblivious to evil and darkness, and is therefore oblivious to the shadows.

The first time this subject is brought up, we might even imagine the child replying with a softly indignant query . . .

“Why paint shadows at all? Even if they do exist, why would I want to introduce darkness into my paintings? The objects themselves are really all I’m interested in, anyway, so why should I paint anything else? Isn’t it enough that I paint a tree? Why must I also paint the darkness which spills onto the ground from that tree?”

The width of the shadow is the width of the gap between our our desires and reality.

Even as adults, most of us put our family photo albums together in a similar fashion. We pay big dollars to trained professional photographers, just to capture an instant in time when everyone from dad to toddler was temporarily coerced into simultaneous smiling. We take snapshots of birthday parties, weddings, theme park rides, picnics, and family reunions. We fill our photo albums with these. But we do not normally pull out the camera during family fights, divorces, depression, stomach flu, or when visiting the emergency room. These are the shadows of life which we prefer not to paint upon our canvasses. Our family photo albums do not tell the stories of our pasts — rather, they tell the stories of the pasts we wish we had experienced. As someone once said, “when we think about our pasts, we all stack the deck.

Darkness and death and evil and shadows make us uncomfortable. So the child’s innocent question is a fair one — “Why paint shadows at all?” — What good do they do? If we cannot eradicate shadows from real life, then so be it. But since our representations of life are under our control, why do we need to give shadows the time of day? Even if a brush exists which has been dipped in dark paint, why must we apply it to our canvas?

The answer to this riddle becomes apparent when we think carefully about the sources of light depicted in many of the drawings and paintings we have seen. In a few of them, the source of light is manifest — a yellow circle for a sun, the streaming white rays of a lamp, or the incessant dancing of a candle flame. In these simplistic examples, it takes little imagination to predict the direction the picture’s shadows will fall. Simply trace a line from the light to an object, and then move a little beyond, and there you will find a shadow. No surprise there. But what about the numerous paintings where no source of light is depicted? What do we see in a painting when the candle is flickering behind a book, when the lamp is in the other room, or when the sunlight comes from a point in the sky which is beyond the boundaries of the canvas?

This is when the shadows become very important indeed. At the times in life when the Light source itself becomes invisible, our only way to detect it is to follow the angles of the shadows back to their source. For, you see, all shadows point back to the Light. The direction of a shadow is always determined by the direction of the Light. This is why, on a child’s drawing, it is impossible to locate the sun in the sky, unless the child paints the sun itself. Since shadows do not flow from objects in either direction, we have no way of knowing whether the sun is in the east, west, or directly overhead. But when an experienced painter depicts a number of objects, with their shadows stretching interminably into the western horizon, we instantly understand that the opposite sky is being warmed by the first rays of sunrise. And when the same painter depicts the same objects in bright hues, with stubby shadows leaning inches to the east, we know that the midday sun has begun its decent, and that the objects in the painting are enduring the heat of an afternoon sun. Even when the source of light is not rendered on the canvas itself, the shadows always point the way to the sun. These lines of darkness eventually converge into a point of light.

So it is with the shadows of our lives. The pain, the torment, the indecision, the helplessness, the misery — all of these things are shadows — long swaths of evil painted like dark gashes upon the fabric of our existence. It can be tempting to lose sight of the picture itself, and instead to focus upon the shadows alone — eventually falling into them as if they exerted the inexorable pull of infinitely massive black holes. And indeed, if we do nothing but gaze upon the darkness, it can be guaranteed that we will never behold the sunlight in time for it to do us any good.

But if we simply back up a bit, and consider the overall direction of the shadows, they magically change from a curse into a compass. Like the dark column of iron in a compass, we find that every shadow ultimately points in the direction of true North. Follow the shadow of a mountain to the mountain itself, and just on the other side you will find the sun. Follow the shadow of a tree to the tree itself, and just on the other side you will find the sun. Follow suffering to its source, and just on the other side you will find God.

Indeed, an evil thing which blocks our view of God, is the very thing which causes the shadow in the first place. But if we choose to apply wisdom, we can follow the darkness like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading Hansel and Gretel back home. . . .

Divorce, promiscuity, destitute unwed mothers, rape, and venereal disease are all festering shadows which are cast upon the canvas of human life. But we can follow them all back to their source, and find that they all began as sexual sin, as violations against the standard of marriage. And when we look on the other side of marriage, we find God as its Author.

Theft, scams, embezzlement, heavy taxation, and even adultery, can all be traced back to greed. All greed is a violation of the command to love one another. And when you look on the other side of that command, you find the Face of Love Himself.

Hate, indifference, anger, and murder all find their root in a disregard for man, who was created in the image of God. Look on the other side of this image, and you find the Original.

Thus the things which hurt us the most are also the very things which point us back to the One we need the most. The sources of our suffering point us to the Source of our healing. All shadows on a canvas point us back to a Light source. All shadows in life point us back to God.

When God said, “Let there be light“, He was also saying, “Let there be shadows.” And for those of us who are infected with darkness, the shadows give us hope, for the shadows are compasses, faithfully pointing in the direction of the Light. Our unhealed eyes may be presently unable to fix themselves directly upon the Source of all Light and Life. In our fallen state, an unmitigated view of the Light would kill us, for no man may see God and live.

But we are still able to run away from the shadows. We are able to identify the shadows, turn our backs to them, and then to pursue the Source of Light we know lies just outside the boundaries of the canvas. We must see the shadows. Then we must flee the shadows. And if we do this consistently, we eventually will find ourselves face to face with God.

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