If you had a philosophy major friend in college, there’s a chance at some point they wanted to share with you their little nugget on “authenticity.” Why do millions of people take time out of their life to travel to another country (France), stand in an uncomfortably long line (outside and inside the Louvre) to be near (through two feet of glass) and observe for less than a minute the “Mona Lisa”? After all, we’ve seen it in magazines, t-shirts, and sometimes dorm room walls (with or without a joint in her hand). It’s a ubiquitous image.
A basic explanation is because you’ve never seen the Mona Lisa. You’ve never seen the original. You have never been near the history, the “experience,” the tradition of what Leonardo De Vinci actually created, touched, and gave to the world. To stand in front of the original is to witness history in both the past and the present. It’s an unburied time capsule that we watch gain in value, with every passing moment, gaze and photograph. It’s about the authentic experience.
And if you’re honest with yourself there’s a 50/50 chance you thought the exact same thing millions of other people thought… it’s smaller than you imagined.
But that’s not what this piece is about. This article is about you… and me. It’s about us. Years ago I decided I needed to see the world for myself. Michael Palin and Anthony Bourdain would never fulfill my thirst to be in the world. I needed more than what words, pictures (and maybe virtual reality) could ever give me. I needed “to be” and do. I owed it to myself to let my physical body be there.
I stood in front of this work of art and tried my best to appreciate and understand why it was so wonderful (and it is). I tried to see why it touched the inner souls of so many (and it does). I quietly tried to take in exactly where I was, among the small throng of iPhone selfies, quiet (and loud) chatter. And then it hit me… I was working myself into the tradition of the Mona Lisa. Follow me here:
Part of what makes the Mona Lisa so amazing isn’t entirely wrapped up in the actual work. It’s also in the fact that for hundreds of years, millions of people have made the pilgrimage to see it. At that moment, I was one of those people. So perhaps my name isn’t etched on some wall commemorating my arrival, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that I helped make the Mona Lisa famous. Without us, the audience, the Mona Lisa would cease to have value, and in turn her seat in history would be removed from the table. We make the Mona Lisa valuable, she owes us. She should be grateful to us, the people; not just the other way around. And I think she is.
Living a real life, complete with effort and toil; traveling through ups and downs, without an Instagram filter is how we give our life real meaning and beauty. The real beauty in seeing the Mona Lisa isn’t in standing there in front of her. The real beauty and magic is everything that lead up to that moment. Traveling and living is what tatters and frays our corners slightly. Spilling wine on the fabric of our existence is what separates my life from yours.
I encourage you to look at yourself every morning and recognize that you are a walking Mona Lisa. You are as valuable and rare, and special, if not more, as the Mona Lisa. Through your life, you will meet as many pilgrims as she has, adding to your experience and special life.
In the Zen of things, we simply say, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But clearly even these words are just a poster on a wall. It’s your job to actually be the thing and do the action. I hope you understand how special you are, because I think I do and I look forward to meeting you someday.