Hang Your Masterpiece

‘The truth.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.’
— J.K. Rowling
You are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.
— Emilie Atumn

FAKES ON MY WALL

Owning a Picasso automatically says something about you. You’re an art lover. You have good taste. You’re not struggling to put food on the table. Typically, a painting by a master can range from $65 million dollars to well over $300 million. People who purchase a Picasso fork over some real cheddar, and the lucky person selling the Picasso is in for a big payday. Now, what if you could create your own Picasso with $50 and some free time? All it takes is a little bit of work for a huge return. Are you in?

I mean, who wouldn’t want that type of dough?

There are great artists who make a living by forging paintings. A good living. A huge living. They’ve learned how to mimic the masters, painting landscapes like Monet, starry nights like Van Gogh, and portraits like Warhol. They’ve delved into art history, searching through form and style and looking for any opportunity to exploit the style of the great masters. If they worked hard enough to pass off their fakes as the real deal, they could make a fortune. And that’s precisely what Eric Hebborn did.

Eric was a struggling artist who couldn’t seem to climb the mountain of success in the art world. After years of settling for crumbs, he decided to take matters into his own hands. His first forgeries were simple: a couple of sketches. He sold them to an art gallery he felt had underpaid him on a previous deal, and he got away with it. Now, emboldened with experience, he really dove in. He mimicked all the greats: Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens. But the key to his crime wasn’t perfect form or a precise knowledge of materials that would have been used by the original artists. His real talent was in setting traps for art appraisers. These experts had to certify his fakes as originals before they would be worth any money. 

If a work of art is purportedly made by a master artist, and that artist is no longer alive, it must be authenticated by an expert before it can be sent to market. They are the gateway to selling the Titian you might have had passed down from a family member, or the Rothko which you stumbled upon at a garage sale. The only way to get top dollar for these paintings is to have an expert’s seal of approval. Successful art forgers understand this, so they set traps.

One key gambit is to make the expert think they’re spotting something only they could know. Use their pride and their arrogance against them. Play to the blind spots of their expertise to get them to validate your work. Once they’ve authenticated something, it’s hard for them to go back on it. Once you’re in, you’re in. 

Think about it. There’s the possibility you’ve walked into a museum and seen a Dali or a Renoir that is a fraud. Just the same, people would have gathered around, waxing eloquent about the textures and beauty that only a master could create. Person after person, unwitting participants of a carefully crafted lie. How many museums in the world have these paintings in their exhibits? How many people have these fakes on their walls? 

There aren’t many people who welcome a visitor into their life saying, “That’s not real, you have a fake on your wall.” We get offended and shout the price we paid for that painting. But I tell you honestly and with love, the carefully curated museum of our life has fakes hanging up. Whether we admit it or not, our walls are often lined with forgeries of identity or self worth, success or true love, meaning and destiny.

“I’m not smart enough.” 

“No one will ever love me.” 

“I don’t have what it takes.”

Have you ever heard someone in your life make these statements? Many people we know and love struggle this way. 

I want to share a story about someone extremely close to me. So close that I can’t tell you his real name. We’ll call him Leo. Leo’s forgery is, “My life doesn’t matter.” 

For starters, Leo is rad. He’s one of the smartest people I know. We’re talking Valedictorian, Fulbright Scholar status here. He’s never had a problem finding a date. He’s the type of guy who wins girls over with a simple smile. He donates blood and helps the homeless. He comes from a family that loves and supports his dreams and passions. He dresses well and is generally upbeat. Not that these things are the markers of what matters in life, but I didn’t expect this from a young man who, by all appearances,“had it all together.” He’s in the prime of his life with a bright future ahead of him.

I remember the exact moment when he invited me to see this counterfeit masterpiece. It was nicely framed and hung up on his wall for me to see. 

Leo and I were on the L train in Chicago, headed downtown to gorge on a freshly baked Lou Malnatti’s deep dish (the only pizza that matters in America). Our conversation bounced from girls we’re digging to sneakers we’ve been eyeing and finally landing on the things we’ve been struggling with over the past year. After I shared some of my personal struggles, Leo paused for a beat and let it out, “My life doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.” 

Who painted that lie? How much did it cost him? How has this affected his life, his relationships, his academic life, his self-esteem, his dreams?  How much of his life had already paid the price for that costly lie? Leo went on to answer some of these questions I was asking myself. This carefully placed “truth” on his wall completely turned his life inside out. It led him to substance abuse, being arrested, lying to his family, living a double life and eventually a plan to take his own life. It was one simple fake on the wall of his mind. It was an expensive lie he had authenticated.

My back and forth with Leo caused me to stagger. The guy speaking to me wasn’t someone who I thought would struggle with something like that. And the way he shared it was like, well, it was like it was the truth. That’s what really bothered me - Leo actually believed it. 

How many fakes are on our walls? What lies have we hung up in our house, proudly displayed for the world to see? On a large scale humanity has bought into some doozies. The world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, Milli Vanilli sing so well!  What would our world look like if these fraudulent masterpieces were still on the wall of human history? And what if we had never discovered the truth? What if we just accepted these things because an expert had authenticated them as truth? Fortunately for us, mankind has advanced and we know the truth about who sang “Blame It On The Rain.” Galileo challenged the idea of a flat earth, an idea that people held as true, an idea that was heresy and ended with him being convicted to house arrest until his death. By committing heresy he helped us realize: We got it wrong. I want to write that again, WE GOT IT WRONG. Humans get it wrong often. We have a long history of getting it wrong. Slavery, The Inquisition, Apartheid, Segregation, Auschwitz, Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas, The Crusades — the list goes on. 

I immediately tried to convince him otherwise, “You matter, Leo.” I gave him reasons why he mattered to me.  I communicated how much my life would suck without him in it. I let him know that the world needed his unique contribution. The gifts and talents he has are specific to his life and no one else can come close to doing the things that he can do. 

I was jumping up and down screaming at the top of my lungs, “Leo, don’t buy it! It’s a fake!” 

Some of you reading this have a friend like Leo, someone who has believed a carefully crafted forgery, a “truth” sold to them under the cover of lies. Others may be just like Leo, which might make this hard to read. 

No matter which category you fit into, we all struggle to figure out which voices deserve our attention. They can be the voices of real people leading us to something better. The voices of our parents, encouraging us, pushing us to follow through and finish something that we may feel too tired to accomplish. They can be imagined voices, like fear and doubt and self-hate, telling us that we don’t matter, that we can’t make a difference, or that we’ll look foolish. Whether the voices are real or concocted, there is something incredibly valuable and real at stake in that struggle. If you can’t distinguish between the truth and a lie you’re going to doubt every voice you hear. Wisdom will shout at you and you won’t be able to understand what it’s saying. Let’s take out our earplugs, grab a Q-tip and focus. Truth is trying to speak to us; we just need to be ready to listen.

This conversation is important because WE get it wrong. YOU and I get it wrong. That may make some people feel uncomfortable, because most people hate being wrong. But being wrong isn’t a bad thing--staying wrong is. Choosing to fight the truth, ignoring our forgeries, no matter what--that’s the problem. Instead of dedicating ourselves to not being wrong, we can be dedicated to looking for where we’re wrong - pinpointing the frauds. 

Let’s chat about this in the context of our love lives for a second. Everyone I know wants to find love. We never say we want to find fake love, we want TRUE love. We all want something REAL when it comes to love. Whether we know it or not, our word choice matters here. When it comes to love we don’t want something that’s manufactured. We want the genuine article. 

Is this on your wall? 

“The person I marry will complete me.”  

“My wedding day will be the happiest day of my life.” 

“If I lose these 10 lbs, then that person will notice me.”

We go to movies to see stories that glorify the thrill of meeting someone new, the magic of a first kiss, and the excitement of falling into bed with a beautiful leading lady or leading man. But the truth is that none of these things sustain us. A relationship doesn’t make it to a fiftieth wedding anniversary on the memory of meeting someone because your hands touched as you reached for the same same coffee cup or because you fell in love with the immortal vampire at your high school.

Real talk; it takes work. Romance isn’t the key ingredient in a life long love story. That stings a bit, yes. It’s the truth. Don’t misread what I’m saying. Romance is important. The butterflies in your stomach are lovely. It’s just that, we’ve made that the point. We’ve made finding “the one” our life goal. 

I had to learn this one the hard way. This painting was on my wall for quite some time. 

My forgery: The list. 

Why do we want someone to fulfill the list we have? I know I’m not alone in this. We want someone that is hot, funny, intelligent, stylish, successful, Puerto Rican, loves basketball, digs hip-hop...wait, that’s just me. 

Your list may not be that precise but odds are you expect someone to be your lover, best friend, comic relief, chef, maid, secretary, and everything else in between. That’s the lie, one person can be your “everything.” The truth is that’s a tall order for anyone to live up to even if you fly around with an S on your chest.

When I was I was 19 years old I had met a girl I was convinced was The One.

“Please pass the the Door Test. Please pass the Door Test,” I chanted to myself as I pulled up to my date’s house. She was pretty, Puerto Rican, 5’5”, green eyes, with a smile like the sunrise. She was from my neighborhood, had a great family, and had a love for hip-hop that rivaled my own. If that ain’t soul mate material, I don’t know what is.

So of course, I was a bit nervous in the days leading up to the date. I washed and waxed my white 1992 Nissan Maxima. I made sure the interior didn’t smell like funky basketball shoes. I was ready for the greatest date of my life. But as I approached my dream girl’s door I was worried about the Door Test, the dating gospel delivered by Chaz Palminteri from A Bronx Tale:

“Listen to me. You pull up right where she lives, right? Before you get outta the car, you lock both doors. Then, get outta the car, you walk over to her. You bring her over to the car. Dig out the key, put it in the lock, and open the door for her. Then you let her get in. Then you close the door. Then you walk around the back of the car and look through the rear window. If she doesn’t reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in...dump her.”

Today I’m 36 years old, and I’m still single. Needless to say, she didn’t pass the Door Test.

I always hear, “You’re too picky!” And I admit I’m selective. But is that so wrong? I know what I want. Don’t we all? Those things we know we can’t do without, the must-haves. My list has been my savior on more than one occasion.

Like when I dated a girl who wasn’t tall enough. Another wasn’t Puerto Rican enough. The next was too suburban. One was too religious (and I’m religious!). I’d date a girl, check my list, realize she didn’t meet my requirements, and then move on before I wasted her time or my own.

This was my cycle. I was fixated on the idea, not the person.

My list was a woman carved from marble. A woman who will never exist. The woman of my dreams wasn’t real because, well, she’s a dream. I was approaching love as a consumer, looking for features the way I look for all-wheel drive in a car. I was asking myself, what’s in it for me? Love, like life, isn’t about getting what we want. My list had led me astray.

A friend of mine gave one of the best relationship insights I’ve ever heard. He spoke about his deep love and affection for his wife, their ups, and their downs. He said most people date someone to have fun, someone attractive and infatuating. They see a version of that person in the future, idealized to their own standards.

But what is that person like when times are rough? Or, when things don’t go the way they planned? Who are they when they’re at their worst? That’s the person you need to fall in love with. In these moments, if you have the same love and attraction as when things are going great, then you need to marry them. Otherwise, you shouldn’t move forward in the relationship.

Can we love that person?

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. It’s not wrong to know what you want. That’s actually very healthy. But make sure that what you want is human and stretches beyond the material. Perhaps, we need to look beyond lists towards something more than height or bank balances, and in doing so bypass the superficial and land on what’s truly important.

Instead of a list, we need to ask ourselves specific questions about a person. A few important questions could be the following:

- Are they dedicated to growth?

- How do they deal with problems?

- Do they work to resolve things or brush them under the rug?

- Are they honest even when the truth doesn’t benefit them?

- Do they blame others when things go wrong or own up to their part? Do they play victim?

- Do they apologize when they wrong someone? Can they admit their shortcomings?

With these questions on my mind and my list crumpled in my hand, I met someone, let’s call her Grace, who didn’t match my old criteria, but she was a rare find. Charismatic, generous, ambitious, talented, and full of life.

On one occasion, while traveling, I had a short layover at home in Los Angeles on my way to Seattle. We wanted to see each other, if only for a short while. She drove to LAX, and I rushed off the plane to meet her. We ran into each others’ arms, and I kissed her as if I hadn’t seen her beautiful face in ages. I looked into her eyes and told her what I’d never said to any other woman before: “I love you.” It felt so right. That moment. That woman. It all made sense.

I was only able to find REAL love after I took the fake off my wall. I suppose you’re expecting happily ever after. Grace and I didn’t work out, but I put more work into that relationship than any relationship before and this made me feel a glimmer of hope. For the first time in my life, I didn’t hide behind a list and a phantom ideal. I’d had the courage to truly love someone—and that’s worth more than any list. 

Even though I’m still single, I’m free from that lie. I’m open to true love. Love that is messy. That sees a person for who they are and doesn’t run away. The temptation is to fall in love with the idea of a thing. The truth is it doesn’t have to be expensive to be worthwhile. If the best things in life are free, why don’t we put that on our wall instead of trying to impress folks with that expensive fake we’re so proud of. 

TAKE 'EM DOWN

You know what’s cool about fake paintings on our wall? You can take them down and hang up something new.

Here are some common counterfeits we should all look out for…

I would be happy if…

I’m not smart.

I don’t need to change.

I’m not enough.

I’ll never be loved. 

I know it all. 

I can’t escape my past.

I don’t have what it takes.

My life doesn’t matter. 

I’m too old/young

Replace the forgeries with these masterpieces:

My circumstances don’t dictate my happiness.

I’m smart. 

I can change. 

I am enough.

I am loved. 

I have a lot to learn.

The past doesn’t determine my future.

I have what it takes.

My life matters. 

I’m never too old/young. 

It’s time to re-decorate your walls. Which fakes do you need to remove and replace? 

Today is the day. Take them down. All of them. Every well painted lie, false image and doctored picture attempting to tell you  who you are and the life you’re going to live. You may be reading this and saying, “Easier said than done. What if my forgery is stuck to the wall?” Or, “I keep taking them down and they keep showing up again!”

If this is how you’re feeling, I’m right there with you. There are places in my life where I’ve felt stuck and overwhelmed with the lies I’ve believed and areas where I just can’t overcome a habit rooted in untruth.. 

Maybe you’ve given up on overcoming your addiction/dependence on drugs/alcohol/sex/cutting/because you’ve failed time and time again. Tomorrow is a new opportunity. Take it one step at a time and one day at a time - taking it down won’t happen overnight. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just keep trying.  Maybe you’ve lost hope when it comes to love because you’ve been cheated on, lied to, or worse. Healing will take time. Keep prying at it. Maybe you’re swimming in a sea of shattered dreams and treading in disappointment, struggling to see the shore.  The lie dangling from your wall may tell you to give up and drown, or settle for a life treading water. I encourage you to signal for help, asking friends and family members to help you swim to shore. 

Living a life dedicated to truth isn’t easy. Taking down the forgeries isn’t always a solo mission, sometimes it’s a group task. You need people who you trust to point out the perfectly curated lies we’ve bought into. Those are the same people who will help you take them down and replace them with Rembrandt’s of truth. Surround yourself with honest souls who want the best for you even when you may not want the best for yourself. They will be the ones who carry you through your toughest battles. They won’t always tell you what you want to hear, they will tell you what you need to hear. 

And that’s the truth.