The School Of Life

Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.


A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 


Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.


Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.


The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.

Sadness & Depression - The Difference by Geoff Harrison

It’s well documented that depression will afflict almost half of us at some point in our lives. And yet our understanding of the illness is often confused with sadness. The Book Of Life argues that a number of assumptions that are made about sadness have been inappropriately applied to depression, and this can lead to people with depression suffering more than they need to.

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

While on the surface, a sad person may present similar characteristics to a depressed one, there is one fundamental difference. The sad person knows what they are sad about, the depressed person doesn’t. Unlike a sad person, a depressed person usually has difficulty articulating what they are sad about. They may simply feel that life has been drained of all meaning.

This can leave them open to unwarranted charges of faking, malingering or exaggerating. Friends may end up feeling frustrated at the lack of progress in their attempts to help. A sad person usually doesn’t feel that life has lost all meaning. A depressed person may totally disintegrate as a result of a minor accident such as breaking a glass.

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

For decades now, the idea has been promulgated that depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, a concept very attractive to pharmaceutical companies who are more than willing to flood the market with their miracle cures. But for many patients, so-called antidepressants have only resulted in weight gain.

Psychotherapy has brought some sufferers some relief because it starts from the premise that the depressed aren’t feeling that way for no reason - there is a reason. “They are very distressed about something but that something is proving extremely difficult to take on board, and has therefore been pushed into the outer zones of consciousness.“ Rather than being able to confront what really distresses them, they remain dead to everything. Often, the depressed aren’t aware that they lack insight into what’s really troubling them.

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

There is another key difference between been sad and being depressed. The sad my feel grief stricken by something out there in the world, but they are not usually sad about themselves - their self esteem remains unaffected. “Whereas depressed people will characteristically feel wretched about themselves and be full of self-recrimination, guilt, shame and self-loathing.” In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts.

The Book Of Life suggests that a sufferer can become self-hating as a defense against the risks of hating someone else , a parent who humiliated them when they were a child for example. Despair can be caused by “undigested, unknown and unresolved trauma”.

Psychotherapy can open the door to greater insight, but this can take time and require courage in the sufferer and patience in the care-giver.

This brings me to the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression. This is nothing new. In the 1950’s and 60’s much knowledge was gained and progress made in the use of psilocybin found in magic mushrooms on patients whose depression seemed treatment resistant. Unfortunately, the reputation of psychedelics was tarnished by their use (abuse) recreationally; this and the linking of the psychedelic movement with the anti-Vietnam War movement led to the banning of these substances by the end of the 60’s.

But in recent years there has been a renewal in interest in psychedelic treatments in the USA, the UK and many other countries. The benefits of these treatments is far too lengthy a topic to be covered here. It seems the use of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy is bringing benefits to many sufferers. But I recommend Johann Hari’s book “Lost Connections” as a good starting point for anyone interested in the topic. It was quite an eye opener for me.


The Importance of Home (and of not having one) by Geoff Harrison

In a recent article in The Book Of Life, author Alain De Botton discusses the psychological importance of home. “One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home.” We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on furniture, crockery, pictures even door handles to create the right atmosphere that reflects “us”.

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

It is argued that having spent time traveling or spending too much time in other people’s bedrooms, we often feel a strong urge to return to our own furnishings, our own environment. “We need to get home to remember who we are”.

De Botton refers to our need to anchor our identity, and that is what the ancient Greeks sought to do with the Temple of Athena which was erected on the slopes of the acropolis.


“The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.”

Finding objects to furnish our homes that correctly reflect our identity can be an arduous process. We may have to go to enormous lengths to track down the right object for a particular purpose. Although there is the temptation to go overboard.

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

“The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities.”

Which begs the question, what if a person has never experienced a stable, secure home environment during their childhood or adolescence? How are these people supposed to create a stable home environment of their own? Where are their reference points? These people often tend to move from place to place (as I have done) and thus have never felt grounded in any location. This can often lead to a sense of not belonging which can create anxiety. The sky-rocketing cost of housing has resulted in people staying in the insecure rental market for far longer than planned.

Then there is the growing tendency these days for families to be constantly on the move. There is the common practice (especially during the housing price boom) for people to buy, renovate and sell over and over again. For them, the home is simply a money making venture. If home is meant to be the place where “our soul feels it’s found its proper physical container”, does that mean these families are leading a soulless existence? I think so.

The Consolations Of Nature by Geoff Harrison

A recent article from the School Of Life discusses the importance of nature, that we should spend more time in its presence for the sake of our mental well being and therefore our health in general. What is less well understood is that “nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity.”

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm

Reference is made in the article to psychologically nourishing landscapes, and that is certainly what I encounter in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which have been the setting for most of my recent work. I always feel refreshed and reinvigorated after a visit to them and it’s always a wrench to have to leave.

Nature give us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the everyday, “an evening sky can lend legitimacy and dignity to our melancholy states.”

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

If you want to experience solitude in the midst of the vast city, visit Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens when it’s raining. Some may find the experience melancholic, but it can be a refreshing change from a world obsessed by buoyancy and cheerfulness. With few people around and no annoying sight-seeing aircraft buzzing overhead, one can really discover the mystery of the place, the variety of plant life and the thought that has gone into the landscaping.

It is argued that for many people, it is not until they reach middle age that they start to appreciate what nature has to offer. “There are so many grander things to be concerned about …..such as romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.” However, by middle age some of our earlier aspirations would have taken a hit, perhaps a large one. We will have encountered some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. We would have encountered a gap between our professional hopes and available opportunities. “One will have had a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One will have been fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly. “

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

So, by middle age it is argued, nature can present a “genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is ready, a few weeks of the year, to be appropriately grateful.” I can only agree. There have been many times I’ve visited these gardens for palliative care.