After a photoshoot I did last weekend, I wandered into North Beach and saw construction going on and this sign emerging from the wall. Apparently it had been there for a hundred years or so, an old corner store buried under layers of paint and sheetrock and wood. I had passed by this corner thousands of times, but never would have known what was there beneath the surface.
An old man who I recognized from the neighborhood stopped and asked why I was taking photos of it. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” and he nodded in agreement. For a moment we imagined what beauty lived behind every wall in the neighborhood and every wall in the city.
It made me think of something Oprah once said on her show. She said that when we pass by folks on the street we have no idea what private battles they are waging. We see people doing annoying things like yelling at their kids or driving too fast or grumpily handing us our double cappuccinos and we are human which means we want to judge them and hate them, but Oprah reminded me that part of compassion is remembering this one small truth, that we have no idea what private battles they are fighting.
When I am flipping through People magazine (guilty, guilty pleausure) and looking at the celebrities with their shiny hair and perfect teeth holding their brand new babies, I start to feel really bad about myself. I start to wonder if I would be happier if I was on the Atkins diet or if I started wearing high heels and getting bikini waxes.
Why is it so satisfying when we read about the fall of one of these celebrities? Why do we love those photos of Jennifer Aniston when she’s just woken up and is on her way to a cafe in her jogging suit? We love this because she looks so human, she looks more like us, imperfect and puffy with coffee breath and stringy hair, and this makes us like her more.
We think other peoples’ lives must be better than ours, that everyone else has it together, that we are the only ones who are flailing and wondering and not at all sure. But really we’re not seeing the whole picture, and if we did, we would probably see that we are more alike than we are different. Beneath the surface there is always something else, something we couldn’t have imagined.
Only three days after this shot, the wall was built over again and painted. I was sad to see it go, hoping for a few more glimpses of its bones. It was like having X-ray vision for a little while, and reminded me of everything we don’t see when we’re all painted over.