I am presently engaged in a jigsaw puzzle of the famous painting by Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, known as the "Creation of Adam". This painting is one of many that adorn this historical monument so it is hard for a first time visitor plus average tourist to absorb anything more than the sheer scale of the endeavour that is the ceiling. I got lucky - the free Android app that I had downloaded when I had visited Italy in June 2014 had skipped tourist places to visit in Rome, but had a beautifully detailed audio account of this very magnum opus. So I had spent 45 quiet minutes inside the Chapel with my neck craned upwards and my mind in awe. Wanting to take back a souvenir, I splurged on a 540-piece jigsaw puzzle for 11 Euros.
My first attempt to put it together after I got back was abandoned almost as soon as it had begun, what with life's sundry pressures taking its toll. Two weeks ago I pulled the box out, craving an outlet for my wayward thoughts. So it was that three-odd years on, the exquisite form of this painting took a slow but steady shape on one corner of the bed. Four days later I was surprised to find myself more involved in this project than ever, contrary to my usual waning of interest in any new project that I undertake. Yesterday I googled the painting. Among other things, two points surprised me: that Michelangelo was a deeply religious man, and that one of the messages encased in the “Creation of Adam” was God’s ultimate power in the creation of man. Maybe it is my interpretation of the painting, but all I could see in the scattered pieces was not awe, but a nonchalance underlined by a satirical smile - driven solely by man’s incredible sense of self importance.
Let me explain why.
The key part of this work is Adam, the first man created by God, getting life through a touch of His finger.
One of the interpretations I read described Adam as lifeless; being incapable of energy and therefore lying in a heap on Earth, weak. While God was surrounded by a halo and a bevy of angels, floating in the air. He is depicted in energetic (and of course, beatific) movement, stretching his fair, muscled and hairless arm towards Adam all the way from Heaven, as if to offer help.
I did not see helplessness in Adam's glorious, naked form. In his lazy, lounge-like posture, I saw entitlement instead. And in the way he stretched his finger out at God, an irreverent carelessness. Almost like as if he was saying, “You owe me this, already. After all, isn’t this why You made me?”
It is true that we do not ask to be given life. We are born because of someone else. But once we are, it is our responsibility to ourselves to make this life count. Ever since I convinced myself that I had a choice on how to live my life and went about doing precisely that, I have noticed with greater and greater frequency, how many others share Adam’s sense of entitlement. It could be adult children expecting their parents to support them financially even after they are capable to being on their own, or employees expecting a certain treatment by their organisations. But most of all, I see this helplessness manifested the strongest in times of crises. Beyond the “Why me?” is a feeling of hopelessness that they are “destined” to suffer, followed by an envy of others who are not sharing a similar fate at the same time. Why they do not ask “Why me?” when something good happens is apparently a moot point.
Beyond the fleeting moment when we enter this world, we are on our own. To expect anything more from fate, destiny, our families or friends is misguided. After all, if God wanted to control everyone’s life, why create a living, breathing, thinking human form? Might as well have created amoebae that are scarcely aware of themselves, let alone the purpose of their lives.
Seneca echoes this thought far more eloquently, when he asks:
But how can a man learn, in the struggle against his vices, an amount that is enough, if the time which he gives to learning is only the amount left over from his vices?
None of us goes deep below the surface. We skim the top only, and we regard the smattering of time spent in the search for wisdom as enough and to spare for a busy man.
I think where and how we start out is no indication of where we end up. It does not mean that we disregard our origins; it means that irrespective of how we came into this world and began living, we should aim to become wiser and happier. In a life with limited time, energy and resources, we, and we alone must make the decision on where, and how to spend them.