Who belongs on the gallery wall?
On Zoom room ratings, the art we decide to share, and what it means to be one of many in the long history of the world
The lovely idea of decorating an office wall with a gallery composed of what one might call "patron saints" has a lot going for it. One doesn't have to agree or disagree with anyone else's choice of characters to display or admire, because the exercise itself is worthwhile.
■ Nobody has the liberty to choose their own birth parents, but everyone can (and should) pick their own intellectual forebears. It's a good idea to consciously pick some attitudinal role models (real and/or fictitious), too. A character doesn't have to be real to offer something worthwhile to emulate -- and indeed many real figures are so good at building their own origin myths that hagiography is often just as good at creating fiction as a deliberate work of creative writing itself.
■ It's nice, of course, when those figures are both real and honestly represented. That's supposed to be the point of tributes, monuments, and memorials -- putting one on display represents a community decision about which people to emulate. We often literally put some of them on a pedestal. There's no reason not to do the same in a workplace, where suitable.
■ Presidents try to communicate things about their values by the busts and portraits they display in the Oval Office. It's a useful practice not because the people on display are perfect, but because they remind us tangibly of abstract values and principles. Could it ever be bad for President to be reminded to ask themselves, "What would George Washington do?" or "Would Abraham Lincoln approve?"
■ But even those of us with far fewer weighty decisions to make still benefit from thinking about our influences. And for as much attention as goes into office decor (now that we're in the era of the perpetual Zoom meeting), it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the best room ratings ought to go not to the biggest walls of well-arranged books (even though those are often pleasing to the eye), but to the best arrangements of "patron saints" -- even if the "saints" are entirely secular.
■ In many dioceses of the Catholic church, candidates for Confirmation choose a patron saint as a confirmation name, usually with a requirement to explain why. Generally, these candidates are teenagers, and, sure, some kids merely pick a name because they like the sound of it. But others really think about it. As well they should!
■ Do you really know who you want to be when you're 16? Not really. Are some religious saints probably terrible role models for life? Yes. But it's really the process that has value more than the choice itself.
■ One of the best reasons to really think about those role models -- intellectual, attitudinal, or otherwise -- is because the process reminds us of the universality of the human experience. We're not really that different from one another, no matter where or in what era we live.
■ That human nature is mostly consistent everywhere and mainly unchanging throughout history is reassuring. Rarely are our problems completely new and novel. And that means we're free to look at the sum of human experience and pick guides who can help make our own paths easier. Whether one chooses real people or merely the characters created by them doesn't really change matters -- the point is in the exercise of realizing how much "nature" resides in "human nature".
■ By no means does that render us helpless, adrift on a sea ruled by fate. To the contrary, it means that we have free will and choices to make with it. And we'd best decide to rule ourselves as though we are aware of the others who have experienced life before. And if putting a few of their pictures on a wall helps to do that, so much the better.