“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
- George Santayana
“We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.”
- Bob Ross
There was a large WWII era cannon that rested proudly outside the American Legion Hall (Post 1812 Holla!) where I grew up, in Plainview, Long Island. It was probably the first landmark I ever noticed because it stood out from all the symmetrically cut bushes, lawn Jockeys and Firebird Trans-Ams (the poor man’s sports car) I passed each day on my way to school.
I was enamored with it. I remember climbing on it, hanging on its long barrel, legs dangling then dropping to the ground to scamper around to the back, shouting pretend orders (“fire in the hole!”) to pretend comrades before my mom pried my hands away and walked me home. I had no clue what an American Legion Hall was but I knew I was passing one because it had a huge cannon and that huge cannon made the Legion Hall important because it all somehow communicated a quiet strength and pride.
At their best, landmarks and monuments convey a message and evoke universal exchange between viewer and subject. Some messages stand the test of time while others have a shorter shelf-life where the intended message of the artist and those who commissioned the piece take on different, unintended symbolism to later generations. For example, monuments that once paid tribute to the Confederacy and even the founding fathers have trended away from being sacrosanct to becoming flashpoints for debate as many people have called for their removal.
I am not trying to take a side but personally, I freeze up at the idea of permanently removing anything historical. Scrapping these disturbing and misguided chapters from the visual landscape feels a little bit wrong. After the initial effects of taking a stand against the ideas of the Confederacy and white supremacy have gone away, there remains something holistically hollow about the effort.
When we suffer through mistakes, traumatic experiences or some other kind of monumental setback, we -collectively or individually- can choose to travel down one of two paths; denial or acceptance. Denying a mistake allows you to move on faster, wash it from your memory. It inoculates you for a time from the raw, throbbing sting of emotions; the regret, pain, remorse, and guilt. It seems far more comfortable than acceptance but denial alone will not lead to improvement or resolution.
If you are strong enough to do it, I advise accepting the situation, mistake or shame. Own it, live with it, and think about it. It can help you heal, understand yourself and perhaps prevent similar occurrences in the future.
Rather than being seen as shameful events to be ignored or glossed over, mistakes can be embraced. Monumental and embarrassing as these may be, they potentially teach us truths about ourselves and often foreshadow great achievements.
Completely denying your past just pushes you backward. Former Soviet countries have had to deal with the issue of deciding what to do with the several thousand communist landmarks that dot their landscape. The Ukranian government enacted de-communization laws, banning all communist symbols, street names, and statues. Thousands of statues of Vladamir Lenin have been toppled and towns have reverted to their pre-soviet names – whether the people liked it or not. Ironically, these laws seeking to scrub away relics of Soviet totalitarianism are being carried out in a kind of Soviet, totalitarian way.
I like what Lithuania did better. They created Grūtas Park, an area where relics and totems of the Soviet Union have been collected into one central location. They pay little to no homage to the Soviet state but also don’t try to deny its occurrence. The call it “Stalin Land”-it’s actually a short drive away from Vilna.
Cato the Elder said:
“After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.”
Perhaps we should try taking all those Confederate statues and put them in one enclosed park like they did with Stalin Land. Replace the monuments with markers explaining what used to be there even adding some scathing details of the beliefs held by those who put them up. It would be an honest, demonstrative and more creative thing to do. Tearing something down will not erase what happened but channeling it into something new can enhance the future.
Life is not about being perfect or having a clean slate.
Mistakes are a chance to redefine yourself, motivate you and ultimately decide what you want to do next. Mistakes are rarely warm and fuzzy like the Care Bears, they can be frightening, awful, heartbreaking experiences that can knock the wind out of you. As bad as that sounds ignoring them could be worse.
Michale Stevens likens one’s past to Arborglyphs-carvings on the bark of a sapling: He says:
“Over time, the scar, the carving won’t go away. Because of the way trees grow, it won’t go up or down much either, it’ll just stay right where it began…but it won’t get bigger. You however can. You can keep growing, doing more things, more branches, being more things. The wound won’t get smaller but you can make it a smaller part of who you are.”
Mistakes are only a starting point.
***Hey, thank you for reading.
I listened to two amazing podcasts by 99%invissible that opened my mind-You have got to check them out. If you like insightful, nuanced reporting about anything and everything behind designs and how things get made and much more, do yourself a favor and go there right now.
The picture at the top of the post is of Nathan Bedford Forrest-infamous white supremacist, Confederate General and Grand Wizzard of the KKK. The podcast- Notes On An Imaginary Plaque tells the shameful account of how and why it was erected.
The falling Lenins is another podcast where I learned about how Ukraine and Lithuanian and other former Soviet countries are dealing with their monumental problems.
Below is the incomparable Michael Stevens- reward yourself.
I made up everything else! Thanks for reading, liking and subscribing.