Lifespan, Complexity, and Empathy
And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages — Shakespeare
There is an image I use in presentations, an 1848 print published by James Baillie, “The Life and Ages of Man from Cradle to Grave.” On the far left, an infant sit’s on his mother’s lap (it is a boy), on the far right a skeletal man is slumped in a chair. The Baillie print allows me to introduce three concepts — life span, complexity, and empathy. These three concepts have an impact on how we tell stories and how our stories are received by others.
Lifespan is important to consider for a number of reasons: it is a reminder that faded photographs of somber looking, older and/or elderly white men capture only a moment in time. For example, here’s Jeptha H. Wade I (1811–1890), one of the founders of Western Union.
This photograph captures a moment in time. It tells us something of the age and status of an individual. It presents us with the image of a successful businessman and philanthropist. It is not in any way representative of the breadth of Wade’s life, nor does it suggest anything about the hopes and dreams of the earlier passages of his life. And so it is for these reasons that we must be conscious that we are recognizing features, not acknowledging a personality. The success photos are the products; we have to look at the factors and the variables that came before in order to understand the man.
Complexity is next. Allow me to continue with my mathematical metaphor. As humans we are champions at reducing complexities in order to better understand the world around us. Keep it simple, keep it short, keep in clean but as we know history is seldom simple, short, or clean. There are lots of complicated and messy or fiddly bits that go into the living of a life.
Simplifying the story allows us to better define, label, and set-up understandable linear narratives:
- Jeptha H. Wade (1811–1890) was a self-made man.
- Jeptha H. Wade like his younger, and one-day-to-be-wealthier neighbor, John D. Rockefeller, found in Cleveland a perfect environment for business development
- Randall Wade (1835–1876) was the feckless only child of a wealthy man.
- Jeptha H. Wade II (1957–1926) was interested in art because his grandfather had been a portrait painter.
Simplification aids us in contextualizing.
There are benefits to the reduction of elements and the simplification of the story, but they come at the expense of exploring the rich complexities of life.
In a sense my work in communicating the Wade family narrative is about reintroducing readers to a complex, sometimes messy story of which we have only bits and pieces. Much is conjecture on my part — that said, it is conjecture supported by primary documents, family lore, and institutional memory. My work on the Wades is a beginning and as more documents come to light some of my theories will undoubtedly be disproved or revisited because of new information. Ah complexity, bring it on!
And finally, empathy. My subject matter — the lives of Gilded Age and Progressive Era elites — is one to which audiences bring all types of preconceived ideas. Headlines in newspapers and magazines trumpet that we are currently experiencing a “New Gilded Age.” Almost inevitably these articles are using the term “New Gilded Age” to fulminate against conspicuous consumption, oligarchies, and the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor.
Without a doubt it is right to condemn, or perhaps call out, the most egregious of these qualities as exhibited by the so-called Robber Barons of the 19th century — but then as now — the truth was never so simple or black and white as pundits would have us believe. There is value in understanding the lives of others even when the others are now-dead rich white elites. Empathy is an essential human trait that allows us to understand someone else.
The increasing polarization of groups in society means we as humans are more and more often privileging apathy over empathy. There is an opportunity at this point in history to look back at the Gilded Age and leverage the many uplifting stories of public and private philanthropy while openly discussing the inequities and prejudices at work in the late 19th century. But my work, in the end, is less about changing the world than it is about telling a rollicking good story of three generations of a family whose most recognizable legacy to the city of Cleveland is arguably her art museum.