The Audible Sigh

“Bateaux à Berck-sur-Mer,” 1873, by Édouard Manet.  He did many of these black-ship seascapes, which ultimately led him to paintings like…

“Bateaux à Berck-sur-Mer,” 1873, by Édouard Manet. He did many of these unformed black-ship seascapes, which ultimately led him to paintings like…

Yesterday someone asked me if dogs go to heaven. Since the Bible doesn’t say anything about this, I don’t know. In fact, there are an almost infinite number of things to which I don’t know the answer, although in some cases I can make educated guesses.

I was reminded of this while teaching on Tuesday, because I seemed to say, “I don’t know” an awful lot. I couldn’t regulate the open time of two different weights of Golden acrylic paints, because they behave so differently. I couldn’t say whether acrylics really degrade over time; the research isn’t conclusive. I can’t answer definitively whether a student should use oils, pastels, or colored pencil; these are very personal questions that can only be answered by trial and error.

“Boating,” 1874, by Édouard Manet.

“Boating,” 1874, by Édouard Manet.

It would be wrong to infer from the above that I don’t know anything about painting; of course I do. But nobody knows everything. There are just too many possible permutations. A good teacher is a guide, not a pedant.

My husband is an expert in something very arcane. His office sits at the pivot between my studio and our living space. I can see and hear him all day, and that’s one of the great blessings of our new situation. Generally he speaks an unintelligible programmer patois that washes over me like First Nations Community Radio in Inuktitut. But occasionally he will grab wildly at his hair and lean forward in an audible, universal sigh of frustration. That I understand. Even he does not know everything. But he will punch at the problem until he’s solved it.

A true expert should be able to answer most of your questions. However, sometimes he or she must say, “I’m not sure it will work, but try this.” If you never hear that, be very skeptical.

"The Execution of Emperor Maximilian," 1868, by Édouard Manet.

“The Execution of Emperor Maximilian,” 1868, by Édouard Manet.

Now, let’s extend that to the world as a whole. If a politician told us, “I am not sure how to bring ISIS to heel. I have these ideas, and I’m going to try them,” we would probably dismiss him or her. Yet that’s how problem-solving actually works. It’s incremental, trial-and-error, and takes time.

We are hungry for easy answers in a world full of nearly intractable problems. The result of this is that we’re suckers for Big Lies. If income inequality, violence, covetousness and war were easy problems to solve, they’d have been fixed long ago. Why don’t we treat politicians as job candidates and analyze their core competencies rather than their rhetoric? Then we might actually end up with the leaders we want, rather than the ones we deserve.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.