The Wedding at Cana is a difficult piece of art to ignore. Even once you take a few steps back, the painting – two stories high of splashy color and exquisite detail – is all you can see. It was Paolo Veronese’s masterpiece, taking almost a year and a half to complete. Having barely survived several wars, it has earned a prestigious spot in one of the world’s most prestigious museums, the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
Even still, most visitors to the Louvre completely ignore The Wedding at Cana. That’s because the wall it occupies happens to sit directly across from the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Veronese’s enormous canvas is awash with enough historical allusion and religious symbolism to make any proper art critic drool, yet crowds of Go-Pro-wielding foreign tour groups rush right past it, straight to da Vinci’s postage-stamp portrait. Is this the legacy Veronese intended to leave?
Living in London, I am bombarded with daily reminders of those who walked the streets of the city before me. Plaques adorn the buildings, words are carved into benches and sidewalks, and a statue is always within a stone’s throw. Clearly these people did something exceptional to leave a mark; although there are many to memorialize, a great many more are forgotten. Only the very best – or the very worst – are remembered at all.
In a city of artifacts, I wonder what’s actually being communicated by these well-intended gestures of remembrance: Is the only life worth living a one worth remembering? Is leaving a wide-reaching legacy something that should concern us? Is there value in the lives forgotten?
In the politically charged work atmosphere of the UK Parliament, the answer seems clear: there are many people who want to make a difference, but also those who want to be remembered for it. Politicians hang their portraits in the hallways for everyone to see before they even leave office. Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” For some, it appears the pursuit of the history books and the pursuit of happiness are one in the same.
But here in London, like anywhere, remembrance is temporary. Consider this: Westminster Abbey is the most prestigious place for a British person to be laid to rest. If you visit the church, you’ll see tombs marking the burial sites for some of the most accomplished figures in history, including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and dozens of monarchs. But take a closer look at the concrete tiles beneath your feet, beneath the church pews – you’ll notice that each of those was once clearly etched with a name, a date of birth, a date of death. That’s right, even the graves of people once deemed influential enough to be buried in Westminster Abbey are now walked on, ignored, their names worn to illegibility. Perhaps the memories of future generations aren’t something worth fighting for after all.
What kind of life, then, should we live? Poet Emily Dickinson wrote that if she could stop one heart from breaking, her life wouldn’t have been lived in vain. Baseball player Jackie Robinson said that a life is not important except for the impact it has on others. From the perspective of these two, what gives meaning to our lives is not what others think once you’re gone, but how much you positively influence them while you’re here.
I realize all those I’ve quoted are people to whom history has been kind, people who left a mark, people who have been selected in one way or another as being worthy of our collective memory. Many of those whose legacies we justifiably keep alive – writers, political figures, and cultural leaders – left their mark not by trying to be seen favorably, but by acting on their duties, their passions, and living the life that was right in front of them to positively impact the world.
However, saying that’s the best way to live misses the point as well. Labeling any strategy as “the way” seems to imply that there are things we can do to add value to our lives, to make one life more meaningful than another. But perhaps your life is valuable inherently, independent of how you live it.
This notion – that every person’s life has intrinsic, unchangeable worth – is difficult to accept because we live in a world that distributes dignity based on supply and demand. We are constantly doing things to make ourselves more interesting, more marketable, more unique, more valuable. It’s practically impossible not to live this way, but it’s futile.
So live for other people, for friends or family, or live for your own passions, or for your own legacy. Live for comfort, for adventure, for money or for love. Every person will choose his or her own way. At the end of the day, maybe your name will be in the history books and maybe it won’t. It shouldn’t matter; life has value not because of how people remember you after you’re gone, but because you were born in the first place.