This is Maria de’ Medici, eldest daughter of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo, painted by Bronzino in 1559. Maria was 11 at the time, a child of Italy’s most prestigious family, bejewelled and solemn, later to be strategically betrothed to Alfonso d’Este. I came face to face with her at the Uffizi in Florence. Gazing at her - across cultures and centuries - I became aware of both her unique importance (could even she have imagined generations of tourists staring at her portrait in a gallery?) and the utter insignificance of her life. We must all come to terms with this paradoxical ‘given’ of our existence. As the bible says, and any devoted parent feels, we ‘children’ are so loved that even the hairs on our head are numbered and known. Yet we are also fragile and temporary and will die. “Man in his pomp will not endure” says Psalm 38, and Maria did not, dying at 17 of malaria. Her sister Lucrezia was brought forth to marry Alfonso instead. So of course we come to therapy asking if there is any point to our lives. If we are depressed or abandoned, we will inevitably feel that nothing we do has any impact, and will struggle with feelings of despair and futility. These are deeply painful facets of our human existence, sometimes only rendered tolerable by the presence of a counsellor who recognises this particular dilemma as a universal, shared experience in which she also participates. We must gain a sense of our own intrinsic worth in order to create a life of meaning and purpose in the face of our transience. We matter greatly, and we do not matter at all. What we make of these apparently contradictory ‘truths’ will depend on the company we keep, and how this company enables us (or doesn’t) to cope with life’s absurdity.
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