What a Set of Van Gogh Guitar Picks Taught Me About Depression


For Christmas 2016, my wife gave me a guitar. No frills. I would have to get up and get it out to tell you what brand it is. It’s a good guitar, from what I can tell. It more than serves my needs as someone who has never played guitar before.

I started to learn guitar in the first weeks of January 2017, but even though it was something I’ve wanted to do for a while, it just didn’t take. It broke my heart to see it in its case in the corner, but my heart wasn’t broken quite enough to do anything about it. It sat there, an entry in my continued work: Things I Start But Don’t Ever Quite Finish. Instead of happiness, the instrument brought guilt.

This past Christmas, one of the gifts my wife gave me was a set of guitar picks with the art of Vincent Van Gogh on them. Picks with sunflowers and stars. I smiled.

I have loved Van Gogh for a long time but my love for him intensified upon watching a 2010 episode of “Doctor Who” titled “Vincent and the Doctor.” Maybe one day I’ll take the time to write more fully upon the impact that this episode continues to have on me, but for now, suffice it to say that there’s a scene where the time-traveling main character (played by Matt Smith) asks a museum curator (an uncredited Bill Nighy) to talk about who Vincent Van Gogh really was, while Vincent Van Gogh listens on:

The Doctor: “Between you and me, in a hundred words, where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

Curator: “Well… um… big question, but, to me Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of color most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

Taking pain and producing joy. I tremble at the idea.

What if medication, therapy, meditation, prayer… what if they all work to fight my depression and it’s not enough? What if there’s a missing element… that of recreation, of play, of creativity? What if I’m supposed to put something back into the universe that wasn’t there before that quiets the demon inside.

I will admit, those Van Gogh picks lay on a shelf until today, when I happened to see them, and that dialogue about Vincent jumped into my head. I thought about all the music in my life and how I consumed it. I thought about all my friends who loved being professional and amateur musicians. I thought about my kids and how wonderful they are at their chosen instruments. I thought about my wife whose very mission in life is to teach character through music. I thought about them all.

I picked up my guitar today. I picked up my Starry Night pick. And once more, I started the process of learning to play.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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