Last year, on all of the episodes of our podcast, my wife and I made sure to ask all of our guests a simple question:
“What’s your favorite number?”
On one of the episodes I gave my own answer to that question (at the 41 minute mark), and explained how my favorite “number” are the years on object labels at art museums. Object labels describe the piece they are next to and provide a description and some commentary about the piece and perhaps the artist’s life. What strikes me - and why they are my favorite numbers - is how the years of one’s lifelong endeavors become condensed into a broad statement about their life and work.
Consider reading a label that talks about how the artist “painted this while they lived in Paris from 1860 to 1887, and participated in the Impressionist movement”, for example. On a wall, those numbers seem so small, sharp and defined, but I try to expand them into the messiness they contain. What 15 years of cultural and commercial failure likely felt like before they broke through, perhaps. Or how their days were filled by daily life as well as the pursuit of their art, how they conceived of their ideas, painted and submitted to be recognized. How they pursued their craft and their ideals without knowing how history would remember them, or their “movement”. Or if they knew, while they were creating this, that it would be looked at, critiqued, or revered beyond their lives.
I apply that to my life by thinking about the greater context behind my life and my time, and how my own pursuits and endeavors will be defined on a little card on a wall (hopefully). These thoughts are a constant companion. I think about how people like me lived through their own amazing times. I think about how people like me - perhaps the same age, with families, friends, and their own interests and dreams - lived their daily lives through their own historical times, perhaps defined by expansions, depressions, conflict, industrial and economic shifts, cultural upheavals. I think about how they would react to our interpretations of their times, if they could, if our explanations for the big contexts of their lives would make sense to them. And I think about how people will interpret my times and my life, my decisions, in the future.
Years have a funny way of passing quicker than we think, but 2017 could be a long year. Here’s the one thing I’ll say: there has never been a more meaningful or valuable time to be a student of history. Do your own research. Pay attention to the lessons from the past. Write the history of today.