Emil Zola once wrote, “The art is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”
Zola’s words apply to life as well as art. Lately, I’ve been questioning what it means for people to embrace the art of life, to do the work with their gifts. Years ago, when I was beginning my faith journey at our current church, I had to call another member to invite her to join a committee. What I got in answer was an earful of dissatisfaction with the church, the pastor, and the lay leadership. When I asked the woman what other committees she was on and what else she did in the church, she replied with rhetorical circumlocutions that made it clear she did not do anything to make the church a better place. She was just showing up and then felt angry that church wasn’t what she wanted it to be.
That sort of passiveness doesn’t really make sense, yet we all fall victim to it at some point in our lives. We sit around holding onto our gift, waiting for someone else to do the work for us. We act as if the gift alone was precious and others ought to appreciate it without our having to lift a finger.
I once had a highly gifted friend whose graduate school advisors told him to write a dissertation on a topic that didn’t interest him but was in vogue at the time. My friend's response to this advice left me quite speechless. “Susan,” he said, “if those professors could just crawl in my head and see how brilliant I am, they wouldn’t ask me to write a dissertation in the first place.”
I had students with similar attitudes in my freshman composition classes. They blamed me for their own failure to make the grades they felt they deserved. One student, who was clearly gifted with language and wanted to be a writer, had no discipline to her writing and told me the rules I taught made her feel constrained. “I’m an excellent free-writer,” she said.
I replied, “Everyone is an excellent free-writer because the only audience for free-writing is you. When you have to communicate what’s going on in your head to someone else with written words, you have to shape your words to convey your meaning to your audience, not just to please yourself.” She said, “I don’t want to do that. I want to be free to express myself my own way.” From her perspective, the world owed it to her to interpret what she meant; she had no obligation to help anyone else understand her at all.
Sounds like a recipe for loneliness to me.
Now, let’s be clear that I’m not singling these two people out for scorn at all. I’m well aware when you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. And like I said above, EVERYONE does this some time, in some way, and mostly, we’re totally blind to our own guilt. I’m so blind the only example I can think of from my own life is pretty benign in the grand scheme, but we can all very safely assume I’ve been just as arrogant as my friend and my student at some point—or many points—in my own life. And chances are, you have been, too.
During my first two years of college, I took 20th Century American Poetry and 20th Century British Poetry. I hated both classes. You see, my high-school education was rooted in classics through the Romantic Poets, with very little American poetry at all. I took both classes in college very passively, waiting for the professors to enlighten me as to the meaning of these weird (to me) poems that were not nearly as fun as Keats’ "Ode to a Nightingale" or Milton’s Paradise Lost or Homer’s Odyssey. I scorned the poetry and blamed the professors because they didn’t teach me anything. It was their fault.
See, I told you my example was benign. Or banal. Take your pick.
Anyway, by the time I got to graduate school, I’d figured out something about education—and life in general. You get out of it what you put into it. I’d put next to nothing into those two modern poetry classes in college, and now graduate school provided me with a second chance to learn—actively learn—about the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Siegfried Sassoon, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell.
I took a poetry genre class with a mediocre professor, worked my butt off, learned a lot, but still didn’t have a good idea what these modern poets were trying to say.
I had one last chance: my comprehensive exam in poetry. At Wichita State, to get an MA in English, a student has to take three comprehensive exams: one on a genre, one on a literary period, and one on a major author. A student’s thesis determines what the content of each exam would be. My thesis was on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so my genre was poetry, my period was the Middle Ages, and my major author was, of course, Chaucer.
The mediocre professor wrote my poetry comp. Together, we had to agree on a book list that would be the basis for the exam. When he asked what I wanted to read, I confessed my utter ignorance and confusion with 20th century poetry and asked if he could recommend books to help me overcome it.
You should have seen how his face lit up. The books he recommended were horribly out of date by critical standards of the mid-1990s (this professor distrusted any criticism written after 1970), but they served me well. I now enjoy reading modern poetry because I put a lot into that exam and used the professor’s strengths in his outdated critical approach to outgrow my own intellectual weaknesses.
Two obvious lessons came out of this. First, standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to enlighten me did not work; I had to let go of prejudice, get down and dirty, and work hard with a wide-open mind. You get more out of an experience if you put more into it, and sometimes it takes a lot more work than you thought it would. Generally, it's worth it in the end.
Second, confessing ignorance and asking for help are necessary to growth, not signs of weakness. I’d always thought Socrates was right when he said, “The more I know, the more I know that I know nothing.” After this, I knew he was right.
But there is a third lesson, tangential to these two, which is even more important. We’re all connected in life, and how we feel about that deeply influences how much we can grow together in community with others. My poetic enlightenment made me a much better teacher, for instance, better able to communicate my enthusiasm for literature in general with bored World Literature students. Also, my mediocre graduate professor doesn’t look so mediocre after all, does he?
In our church life, work life, and social life, the same lessons apply. When we jump in and give, really give, of our time and talents to others, amazing things can happen. We stop judging and start living. We feel connected and happy. One lovely example of this is my in-laws’ volunteering for Meals on Wheels. They don’t just deliver meals; they deliver a kind word and a smile, and they say they get more out of it than the people who get the food.
My mother, a dental hygienist, gave so much to her patients that when she retired, some of them cried, a few felt hurt and got mad at her for abandoning them, and many gave her gifts of gratitude and affection. Technically, all she did was clean their teeth, often hurting them in the process. But she did it with skill and kindness and caring, and her patients noticed.
Right now, I'm trying to decide whether or not to train as a Stephen Minister. It's a tough decision because on the one hand, the training will equip me to help other people in very direct ways, but I have doubts about my gifts for that sort of ministry. It might also take time away from writing. How do I choose where my gifts are needed most? Which gifts need more attention at this point in my life? Seems like a situation for lots of prayer and a few key conversations with people who know more than I to give me guidance.
How do you connect and grow in your life? Do you look for opportunities to grow? Are you doing the work that goes with your gifts? Where could you do better?