Thoughts after spending 5 hours in the National Portrait Gallery, looking into the faces of Americans from the 18th century to the present day.
If I’ve acquired any broadening of perspective from all the hours I’ve spent in the Washington D.C. Smithsonian galleries, it’s this: every life is valid. Everyone has a story. Everyone is “okay.” Although human experience is varied, everything we do, everything we are, has been done, has been experienced before by someone. This is cause for joy. It means that we can’t get it wrong.
There is no way to err or truly screw up. All error comes from cultural viewpoints; it’s all a point of view; it’s all relative. And looking back across history in these incredible museums imparts the realization that there are no true successes or failures, no right or wrong in any kind of ultimate, transcendent sense. Everything that could be done has been done (and even so-called new things like space walks on Mars and other technologically aided novelties have existential roots in early voyages of discovery from history).
Because everything has already been done and there have been so many personality types recurring again and again and so many in each
generation striving in the same ways, the “general” of history validates the “particular” of the individual. We lead lives that are different in their particularity (being unique to time, place, culture), but that have been lived before in a general sense. The faint smile of Alexander Hamilton can been seen on people passing on the street outside the National Portrait Gallery. George Washington’s armchair is something we might find in a living room (certainly in any number of attics). FDR’s gaze in a national photo has the same depth and resonance as that of Arthur Rubenstein in his famous portrait. The potential comparisons are endless.
There have been artists and explorers and statesmen who were considered successes or failures in their time, but all of them have passed into history. And they were all valid. Death really is the great equalizer and this is a deep relief for someone like me, who has been told he needs to prove his worthiness his whole life. We deify our national heroes, but they were (and are) just talented people. And there is talent everywhere; though, it is not uniformly recognized or rewarded.
Essentially, these realizations amount to one basic truth: we are completely free to do whatever we wish because we have the power to define those particularities and the grace of knowing that we are also part of history. How widely we are known and if we are remembered is hardly up to us. Our only responsibility is to remember that we are okay, that we can’t get it wrong, that we are worthy by default.
There are no standards of quality that are universal and transcendent. The brilliant short story of yesterday will be disregarded and dismissed today in favor of something else. And those works that “survive the test of time” are great because we can still see their greatness. Our attitudes are what make them great. Otherwise, they are works of art like any others–each with their unique expressions and depths.
Say to yourself, “I only need to do my own thing. I don’t need to make any decisions out of desperation because desperation comes from the need to appease some external force or reach some external standard. Beyond satisfying basic needs, I am completely free.” The trouble is that the attitude of having to prove oneself to family and society is pervasive. As soon as we shake it off, we find ourselves unconsciously interpolated back into that dynamic. So our self-work must now be all about living for ourselves, as our authentic selves.
Authorship of one’s life is an inwardly focused prospect. It begins first and foremost as a choice of perspective and culminates as an outward way of living. We are all inwardly, which means perfectly, free.