There was a copy of the Athenaeum Portrait above the blackboard in one of the classrooms at Irving Junior High in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is the famous unfinished painting of George Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart. The copy of the painting was the personal property of the teacher who taught American History in that room. The teacher (I don’t remember his name today) said he liked the picture because it represents the incompleteness of history. I found out later that the artist did not want to sell the portrait, so he left it unfinished so he could use it as a reference for future paintings of the first United States President. I used to ponder that picture whenever the history lessons seemed boring. To my eyes, the unpainted portion of the picture was as visually important as the likeness of Washington’s face.
Yesterday, as I looked at the image sourced from the Internet, the history teacher’s reason for liking the Athenaeum Portrait came to mind. His reasoning makes logical sense. Then my mind drifted into the general concept of incompleteness. All of life itself is incomplete. We are constantly changing and evolving physically and mentally. Some people use the phrase “a work in progress” to describe their lives. I like their definition. We live our lives as unfinished beings until we die. Even then, many people believe we are still unfinished because growing continues in some sort of heaven or afterlife.
There is also the common, human feeling that one is incomplete until a lover or a mate becomes a partner in life. Despite protestations to the contrary, that feeling remains in the subconscious if a partner is not found or if one’s partner is lost. In my opinion, this state of mind derives from a biological instinct. One can live an otherwise happy, satisfying life yet have some measure of yearning for a life companion. There is nothing wrong with accepting this form of incompleteness because this is the way of life. When we accept this incompleteness, life makes more sense.
We live in an imperfect, incomplete Universe. Creation and change are ever-present. Philosophers and scientists have known this throughout the ages. It’s when we ponder incompleteness that we can begin to find our place in the world. We may remember that some of our most beautiful, profound events in our lives were moments that were somehow incomplete. When we extend this concept further, we remember that we understand the world from our perspective. Regardless of how objective we try to comprehend something, we can never fully leave subjectivity behind. We may have a mental picture of total perfection and completeness in mind, yet we only see what we allow ourselves to see. It seems to me that it is impossible to see the totality of everything. We will always have an incomplete picture of the way the Universe exists and operates.
On a less philosophical but more practical scale, we know that technological development is never finished. Engineers and developers come up with improvements and new ideas for technology each day. Even if the changes are cosmetic, the appearances will eventually become outdated and old-fashioned; styling updates are always in the minds of the stylists.
When one reads the biographies of great people of history. The leaders, the artists, the composers, the industrialists, the generals, the theologians, scientists, and etcetera, we learn that many of their calculations, hypotheses, theories, beliefs, musings, and works were open-ended or incomplete. Albert Einstein and George Washington understood that the greatest accomplishments remained to be discovered and tried. They understood their limitations and that their works would ultimately be incomplete. More important, profound things lay ahead of humanity.
Wise sages of the past understood that if we have a sense of incompleteness, then others will be less likely to resent us. If we insist on total, complete fulfillment in our works and perfect achievements, we may become outwardly unsettled and unhappy and inwardly deranged. The best dinners are not too savory and the finest desserts are not too sweet. There is always a slight sense of subjective incompleteness that brings about delight.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes brand consultant, novelist, and writer, Mohsin Hamid. “I’ve realized that it’s important to stop trying to think I’m any one thing. People are confused as to their identity and try to cling to one aspect of that identity to describe what they are: American, Republican, Muslim. These are really incomplete.”