Imperfect and Incomplete
Disruption can feel final. But it's a chance for renewal.
“We are to go to law never to revenge, but only to repair.” — Samuel Pepys, 1661
I recently wrote about physical monuments and their relative impermanence, our focus being better served on monuments to our relationships.
As I looked again at the image on that entry, I focused not on the monument itself, but on Bowling Green. And that in turn made me think of how resilient we are.
Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green, N.Y. July 9, 1776 by William Walcutt, 1857 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)
I had occasion to be in the neighborhood of Bowling Green a couple of times last year, visiting a client and speaking at an event in the Financial District. While I usually find myself staying in Midtown when I’m in Manhattan, this time I was at the tip of the island, and that afforded me an opportunity to indulge my love of history.
Geographically, when you get above 14th Street New York is incredibly easy to navigate: Avenues running north and south, Streets running east and west in a predictable grid. The closer you get to the tip of the island, while there’s still a grid, you’ll find curves and intersections with other paths that are more akin to Boston than the Big Apple.
It’s more historic there, with old buildings to complement those old street systems. And in the midst of some of them, about three blocks from the water, at the beginning of Broadway, is Bowling Green.
Now, you may know Bowling Green from its most famous resident in recent years: the Charging Bull sculpture. Just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, it’s been there since 1989. Bowling Green, however, goes back a bit farther in the city’s history. Currently, it’s the oldest public park in New York City, but it’s had a bit of a journey — a journey not too dissimilar from those we find ourselves on in our careers or personal lives.
It originally served as the council ground for Native Americans, and was the site of the legendary sale of Manhattan to Peter Minuit in 1626. The Dutch recognized it as "the Plaine" and the area served as a cattle market and parade ground from 1638 to 1647. In 1686, it was officially recognized as a public green space and in 1733 it was named a public park.
The equestrian statue of George III was placed in the park in 1770; it was felled by the Sons of Liberty after a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. Over the years, the park has held two fountains, a statue of an early mayor, and neighborhood gardens. But in 1977, Bowling Green was restored to its appearance in the 18th century.
When monuments come down, that’s not the end of things; indeed, it’s a new beginning. It’s an opportunity to replace , rebuild, and reform. Or to “build back better,” as one candidate is saying.
It reminded me of an article I read about the sashiko recently (“Can the Japanese art of ‘sashiko’ help to mend our frayed world?”). Taken literally, sashiko means “little stabs” in Japanese. It’s the art of fabric repair, but done in such a way that the repair is apparent—celebrated, even. It’s based on the concept of wabi-sabi, or the beauty found in things that are imperfect and incomplete.
What a fine metaphor for the human condition. For who among is us perfect? Who feels complete? We’re all on a journey of sorts, finding our way, reinventing ourselves as we go.
Whether it’s you building your career, navigating the uncharted waters of parenting, or being a good son or daughter, we make mistakes. We feel as if it’s never good enough or complete. In short, we’re human. But through those challenges, we still hold our core beliefs and use them as a lodestar to guide our decisions.
The founders of our country, a few years after that statue of King George was melted down for ammunition, realized that our plan had to be a fluid one, open to change. They admitted as much in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Note that wording. It’s not “perfect.” It’s “more perfect.” Moving toward perfection. Never quite attaining it, but always striving. While remaining true to our purpose.
Like Bowling Green, which has seen cattle, revolt, community participation, rebuilding—and cattle again via the Charging Bull—we have an opportunity to change with the world around us.
And to retain our ideals in the process.
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