Don’t judge a book by its cover

What the Sistine Chapel taught me about success and dialogue

When I was studying philosophy in Rome, I would often go to the Sistine Chapel to simply sit and admire. I am no art connoisseur or historian, but there is something about that Chapel that captivates me. No words could communicate well enough to you, the experience of sitting in the Sistine Chapel. Practically empty, at 9 in the morning, after waiting in line for 2 hours. Engulfed by the grandeur. Contemplating the figures of Jeremiah, Jonah, the creation of Adam, David & Goliath, the Last Judgment… such beauty and majesty.

Until one day I stumbled upon Michelangelo’s poem to Giovanni da Pistoia “When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

How could he say he is not a painter? I can appreciate that his forte was sculpting. Yet seeing the paint flow through his paintbrush onto the ceiling covering the Sistine Chapel, in such a magnificent manner, and say that his painting is dead? With these masterpieces that speak to tens of thousands each day, without uttering a word. Touching millions each year, without moving an inch. How could he see this treasure unfold under his very hands and say ‘I am not a painter’? I don’t believe it was humility, nor self-criticism or belittling.

I believe it’s about his own journey, as a person – his struggles, his victories, his failures, his regrets, his joy.

We often can only see the surface of a person’s life. Like the surface of the water we dip our toes into, before our first swim of the summer, to check the temperature of the water. The surface brings us to conclusions and sometimes judgments, or rather misjudgments. In both a idealizing or condemning manner, it is a part of everyday life. It allows us to ‘get on with life’.

From judgement to dialogue

Sometimes we have the privilege of stopping and thinking, reflecting even, on who the person, beyond the surface, may be. Have you ever felt that thud in your heart, the moment you realise that you’ve had it all wrong? Maybe the person who seemed to have it ‘all together’ has been struggling with their self worth all along. Or the person who seems apathetic is dealing with personal grief. There is a depth to each and every one of us that is not conspicuous in everything we do, yet it is present, unobtrusively. Waiting to be revealed – to be shared. The depth of a person doesn’t leave us unchanged, and if we’re ready to put ourselves out on the line too, it may lead to dialogue.

And what is the scope of dialogue if not transform our points of view? To lead us to see the value not through the surface of results, but through the processes, through the journey. To help us acknowledge judgment and prejudice, while avoiding to be conditioned or influenced by these judgments. To seek to see the significance that others see, that we have been unable to recognise as yet. To have a space where it can be revealed to us.

So as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover, rather, let it put you in question through its story.

The Author

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