Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing: An International Education Nonprofit and a Devil’s Bargain

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2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a well-known US-based private nonprofit that focuses on international student exchange and aid, foreign affairs, and international peace and security. IIE refers to itself as “a world leader in the international exchange of people and ideas.”

While IIE has numerous achievements to its credit, there are also many missed opportunities and built-in constraints that are the result of its status as a quasi-US governmental organization. It describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit” but the former adjective is in name only.

I think the title and above excerpt from my essay about the Institute of International Education (IIE) pretty much sums it up.  Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.  Full disclosure:  I served as country director of IIE-Vietnam from 2005-09.  I therefore know whereof I speak.  

Here is a Vietnamese translation.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Postscript:  It will not surprise some of you to learn that the major US higher education digital media outlets would not touch this piece with a ten foot pole.  Why?  Because it’s too hot to handle.  Read the article to find out why.  “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” ―A.J. Liebling

Motivations for Studying Abroad and Immigration Intentions: The Case of Vietnamese Students

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Here’s a perfect example of serendipity.  I noticed that someone had visited my blog from this referrer:  Motivations for Studying Abroad and Immigration Intentions
The Case of Vietnamese Students, Journal of International Students.  Why?  Because the author cited this 2018 blog post:  Viet Nam Ranks 5th in International Enrollment in 3 Countries.  

It was written by Tran Le Huu Nghia is a research fellow at Informetrics Research Group and Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ton Duc Thang University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His research interests include graduate employability, teaching and learning in higher education, international education, teacher education and TESOL. 

Below is the abstract:

This article reports a study that investigated prospective and current Vietnamese international students’ motivations to study abroad and their immigration intentions. Analyses of 55 intercept interviews and 313 responses to a survey revealed 12 push and pull factors that motivated students to pursue overseas studies and 18 sociocultural, economic, and political factors that influenced their immigration intentions. Independent samples t tests indicated that there were statistically significant differences in the influence of motivations on decisions to study overseas between groups of male and female students and prospective and current students. The analyses, furthermore, suggested that students’ immigration intentions depended on their personal attachment to the home country and (perceived) adaptability to the host country.

I highly recommend this short (16 pp.) article, if you’re interested in learning more about why young Vietnamese study overseas, including key push and pull factors. 

To further whet your appetite to read the entire article, here is part of the conclusion:  

In short, despite its limitations, this exploratory study found that international students were motivated by several factors to pursue international education overseas. The study also indicated that not all of the students were immigration hunters; many were willing to return their home for socioeconomic, cultural, and political reasons. Therefore, the fear that international students arrive in a host country to seek immigration opportunities is biased, especially when the host country has the power to adjust its policies regarding international students (e.g., Spinks, 2016).

I’ve had considerable first-hand experience over the past 14 years in Viet Nam with the fact that many Vietnamese students who study overseas at not “immigration hunters” and are returning home for “socioeconomic, cultural, and political reasons.”  The reasons are simple:  1) there’s much more to come back to in a growing number of fields; and 2) conditions in some of main host countries are not as favorable as in the past, to say the least.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Patriotism: “The tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”

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Photo by MAA

Vietnam’s National Day is a fitting time to take stock of what this country and its people have accomplished but also to think about what each and every citizen can do to meet unmet needs and challenges and make Vietnam an even better place to live, including environmental awareness and action, heightened civility on the roads, business ethics, and other concrete areas that are within their control. 

On a personal note, it is a time to reflect on my gratitude to this country, which has suffered so much at the hands of foreigners, including those from the country whose passport I hold, for its willingness to embrace me and many others, for giving me the chance to contribute to my chosen profession doing work that I find deeply satisfying and richly rewarding, and for allowing me to take the road less traveled by. It has indeed made all the difference. 

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People fly Vietnam’s national flag in front of their houses in Hanoi for National Day oo September 2, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

This is the English version of an essay of mine that was published yesterday by VNExpress International

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Image courtesy of VNExpress

Here’s the Vietnamese version for those of you who read Vietnamese that appeared in VNExpress on 1 September:  Lòng yêu nước

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam

For the people of Vietnam, who were just beginning to recover from five years of ruthless economic exploitation by the Japanese, the end of World War II promised to bring eighty years of French control to a close. As the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi), better known as the Viet Minh, Vietnamese patriots had fought against the Japanese invaders as well as the defeated French colonial authorities. With the support of rich and poor peasants, workers, businessmen, landlords, students, and intellectuals, the Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh) had expanded throughout northern Vietnam where it established new local governments, redistributed some lands, and opened granaries to alleviate the famine. On 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. The first lines of his speech repeated verbatim the famous second paragraph of the USA’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.

Source:  History Matter, George Mason University


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Photo courtesy of National Defence Journal

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.

They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.

To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.

In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land.

They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank-notes and the export trade.

They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.

They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie; they have mercilessly exploited our workers.

In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese Fascists violated Indochina’s territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them.

Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quang Tri province to the North of Vietnam, more than two million of our fellow-citizens died from starvation. On March 9, the French troops were disarmed by the Japanese. The French colonialists either fled or surrendered showing that not only were they incapable of “protecting” us, but that, in the span of five years, they had twice sold our country to the Japanese.

On several occasions before March 9, the Vietminh League urged the French to ally themselves with it against the Japanese. Instead of agreeing to this proposal, the French colonialists so intensified their terrorist activities against the Vietminh members that before fleeing they massacred a great number of our political prisoners detained at Yen Bay and Caobang.

Notwithstanding all this, our fellow-citizens have always manifested toward the French a tolerant and humane attitude. Even after the Japanese putsch of March 1945, the Vietminh League helped many Frenchmen to cross the frontier, rescued some of them from Japanese jails, and protected French lives and property.

From the autumn of 1940, our country had in fact ceased to be a French colony and had become a Japanese possession.

After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.

The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Vietnam and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eight years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.


This speech was given on 2 September 1945 at Ba Đình Square by Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, who declared Vietnam’s independence under the new name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) in a speech that invoked the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Source: Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works Vol. 3, (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960–62), 17–21.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

US Student Visa Issuances Up in May-July 2019 Over 2018

dos-logo-lightAs US international student recruiters know all too well, these are tough times for most institutions for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons.  Viet Nam, however, remains a bright spot on the recruitment horizon.  As of March 2019, there were 30,684 young Vietnamese studying in the US at all levels, most in higher education.  Viet Nam ranked 5th among sending countries.
Since I like to stay up-to-date with these trends and since we can all use good news in troubled times, I’m happy to report that the number of student visas issued by the US Embassy and Consulate to Vietnamese student has seen an increase of 4.58% during three of the peak months of May, June, and July of this year over the same months in 2018.  Here are the relevant stats:

May 2018:  1110
May 2019:  1223

June 2018:  3147
June 2019:  3148

July 2018:  4942
July 2019:  5250

SourceMonthly Nonimmigrant Visa Issuance Statistics, US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs
If the 3% increase from 8/18 to 3/19 is any indication, many of these visas may be for secondary (boarding & day) school students.  sevis dhs
Regarding the latter, I emailed the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to ask when the latest SEVIS by the Numbers data would be released.   Lo and behold, I received a response in one day (thank you, US government civil servants!) informing me that “SEVP is currently in the process of clearing new data for upload on Study in the States’ Mapping SEVIS by the Numbers tool and we anticipate this data to be published in the next month or so.”  
Peak student visa season winds down next month so let’s hope August has followed in the footsteps of the preceding three months.  Stay tuned!
Shalom (שלום), MAA
Postscript:  On a related note, colleagues often ask me about issuance and refusal rates for Viet Nam.  All I can do is provide a general answer and distinguish between different types of institutions and programs.  Since the US government does not release those for some reason (these are not a state secrets, after all), my suggestion is for them to file a request for that information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Anyone interested?

How Van Gogh Found His Purpose: Heartfelt Letters to His Brother on How Relationships Refine Us

Below is a reprint from Brain Pickings, a website that describes itself as An inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more.  This particular essay is from the BP archives, what Maria Popova, its creator, refers to as “something worth resurfacing and resavoring as timeless nourishment for heart, mind, and spirit.”  

I wanted to share it with you, dear reader, not only for that important reason but because it relates to the work that my colleagues and I do with parents and students, especially regarding the future and life of the latter.  It’s about finding one’s ikigai and, in this case, the circuitous path that Vincent van Gogh took in doing precisely that.  Thank God he did!

It’s also about the close and supportive relationship he and his brother, Theo, developed.  As Ms. Popova observed, “That summer, Vincent resolved to pursue art as his lifelong endeavor.  It was Theo who first urged him to turn art into a career, and he soon became Van Gogh’s greatest champion and most selfless supporter — one of creative history’s greatest unsung sidekicks.”  

Vincent Willem van Gogh died by his own hand at the age of 37, having created around 2,100 works of art in the span of a decade (1880-1890), after he found his purpose and with the loving support of his brother, Theo.  This included about 860 oil paintings, most of which he painted during the last two years of his life.  

Part of life is finding one’s purpose, usually a nonlinear process that entails personal exploration and experimentation, good advice and, if available, as they are now, accurate assessment tools.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA


Long before Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) became a creative legend and attained such mastery of art that he explained nature better than science, he confronted the same existential challenge many young people and aspiring artists face as they set out to find their purpose and do what they love — something that often requires the discomfiting uncertainty of deviating from the beaten path.  

In January of 1879, twenty-six-year-old Van Gogh, who had dropped out of high school, was given a six-month appointment as a preacher in a small village — a job that consisted of giving Bible readings, teaching schoolchildren, and caring for the sick and poor. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task and, in solidarity with the poor, gave away all of his possessions to live in a tiny hut, where he slept on the ground. But his commitment backfired — the church committee that had hired him saw this as extravagant posturing of humility and fired him. In August, Van Gogh moved to a nearby village and took up drawing and writing — which he had been doing recreationally for years, for his own pleasure — as a more serious endeavor. That summer, his beloved brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future, making it clear that the family was concerned with his lack of direction. (Vincent was the eldest of six children, which only compounded the expectations.) The uncomfortable talk, which initially caused a rift between the brothers, affected Van Gogh profoundly and became a serious turning point in his life.

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Young Vincent van Gogh

On August 14, 1879, he wrote an exquisite letter to Theo, found in the newly released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library). The letter endures as a piercing testament to the conviction that, as another famous young man wrote in his own defense of the unbeaten path, “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”

Van Gogh begins by turning a wise eye to the silver lining of why the conversation had hurt and riled him so:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.

Noting the “salutary effect” his brother’s visit had on him, Van Gogh speaks to the soul-nurturing power of close relationships:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngA prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man.

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Theo van Gogh

The letter, however, takes on the tone of an impassioned plea as Van Gogh seeks to convince his brother that he, Vincent, is not the failure the family believes him to be. Lamenting what “the damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness” inflected by his uncle’s most recent attempt to convince him to return to school and pursue a proper occupation, Van Gogh scoffs at the formulaic life-path laid before those who pursue traditional education:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.

Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?

In addressing his brother’s accusation of having “a taste for idling,” Van Gogh points out that there are degrees of doing nothing and speaks beautifully to the idea that what seems like boredom is an essential faculty of creativity:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSuch idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.

Putting jest aside, Van Gogh professes being “overcome by a feeling of sorrow” and a constant “struggle against despair” in the knowledge that his family sees him as “annoying or burdensome,” “useful for neither one thing nor another,” for his lack of purpose and direction in life. Expressing a wish for the relationship between the brothers to be “more trusting on both sides,” he makes a passionate case for being afforded some space, support, and optimism as he finds his own course:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIf it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: It’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variables and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.

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A letter from Vincent to Theo, 1879

Nearly a year elapses until the brothers reconnect — the longest break in their lifetime of letters and loving support — during which time Van Gogh sinks into a state of destitution and despair. On June 24 of the next year, he finally reaches out to Theo upon receiving 50 francs from him — around $200 in today’s money — which the aspiring artist accepts “certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling.” Indeed, he attests to the creative value of melancholy and echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of suffering as he writes to Theo:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhat moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.

[…]

Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.

Considering how he adapted to this state of “active melancholy” as he immersed himself in making art, Van Gogh makes a wonderfully self-aware remark about his notorious unkept appearance:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs of social convention. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that field of study with which one is preoccupied.

Reflecting on having spent the past five years “more or less without a position, wandering hither and thither,” Van Gogh revisits the question of finding his purpose. In a sentiment reminiscent of Picasso’s remark that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” he offers a magnificent counterpoint to the myth that so frequently paralyzes people, especially young people, who set out to live a life of purpose — the idea that the path must reveal itself before you embark upon it, that you must “find yourself” before you begin your creative journey. Van Gogh writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOn the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. The goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s admonition that most people succumb to conformity by seeking out “a solid position in life” — that is, a humdrum jobby job — Van Gogh adds wryly:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Countering his brother’s accusation that he has changed a great deal since their youthful walks together, Van Gogh argues that merely his circumstances changed, while his innermost values only deepened as he immersed himself more fully in his two great loves, art and literature:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhat has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.

[…]

If you now can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.

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“Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” by Vincent van Gogh

He returns to the heart of the matter — the anguish of not having settled into his sense of purpose:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIn my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?

And yet as cut off from the capacity for affection as he may feel, Van Gogh nonetheless believes that love is the only conduit to connecting with one’s purpose, with divinity itself:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

Remarking on having benefited from “the free course at the great university of poverty,” Van Gogh envisions finding his purpose after a long period of floundering:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

Once again, he appeals to his brother to see him as “something other than some sort of idler” and to learn to distinguish between the two types of idling, the destructive and the constructive:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThere are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t’ always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.

Bleeding from Van Gogh’s words is the hope that his brother would see him not as the first but as the second kind of “idler” — a hope he amplifies with a moving metaphor in closing the lengthy letter, one that speaks with harrowing elegance to the hastiness with which we tend to judge others and to mistake their circumstances for their capabilities:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIn the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

He concludes by returning to the ennobling, liberating nature of close relationships:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngYou know, what makes the prison disappear is very deep, serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell. But he who doesn’t have that remains in death. But where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.

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“Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” by Vincent van Gogh

That summer, Vincent resolved to pursue art as his lifelong endeavor. It was Theo who first urged him to turn art into a career, and he soon became Van Gogh’s greatest champion and most selfless supporter — one of creative history’s greatest unsung sidekicks. Despite his well-documented and ultimately fatal struggle with mental illness, Van Gogh wrote frequently of the sublime joy and immense fulfillment he found in art — a sense of purpose without which his life would have been undoubtedly grimmer and quite possibly even shorter, and creative culture vastly impoverished.