Thursday, August 5, 2010

Working with Your Gifts

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?


  1. My writing is not as elequent as yours, but I've been thinking about gifts or talents lately. I find that I stiffle my creativity because I'm afraid of failing. Failing at what?! I don't depend on my artistic endeavors to make a living. Afraid of not meeting someone in cyberland's expectations? Afraid that I will waste some supplies that might not end up being showcased for others to see, but rather, end up teaching me something?

    While watching TV on night while on vacation (as we don't have TV at home) we came across a program about cake chefs who had these incredible challenging orders that had to be designed, built, baked (to taste good!) and delivered in a short amount of time. One chef cut her cake only to find out the angle was wrong. What did she do? Panic, like I have been known to do when the cake is falling apart? Nope. She just grabbed the portions that had been cut off and started slapping them on the base to change her angle. My husband leaned over to me and said, "did you learn something from her? Grow some balls and instead of panicking, DO SOMETHING with it!!" Rather crude, but effective in making me realize that I am probably wasting my talents and stunting my own growth out of fear.

    I am my own worse limitation. My gifts are growing stagnent waiting for me to nuture them.

    I don't know if studying for the ministry is right for you. I do know that you bless me with your writing.

  2. Starla,

    I think you expressed yourself quite eloquently. We should all be as courageous as the baker wen faced with a problem or failure! Sometimes, and in some situations, it's very hard, isn't it?


  3. Susan,
    That's a great question and one that I think about a lot. It is hard to know what God is calling you to do and what you are just wishing to do. In my experience, when God calls, it's pretty persistent and when He calls He also opens doors. Those are two things I try to look for when I prayerfully consider "what next?" But, sometimes I still cant' tell so I just jump in. If it works then I made the right decision. If it doesn't then I still learned something.

    Good luck and have fun.

    PS I do enjoy your writing. Yours is one of the few blogs I read consistently.

  4. Wow. Susan, you do bless us all daily with your writings. I agree with your commenters - your blog is one that I rush to read every day. I may not always comment, but I DO always think after reading your writings. You will have to do what you feel is the right thing for you and your family. Do I think you would make the worlds best Stephens Miniser? Yeah, baby! Do I know if it's what you are destined to do? Nope! I agree with what Starla has said too. Many, many times, I don't 'go for it' because I'm afraid of failure. You know that you would be the first one in my corner telling me to 'go for it'. Best wishes in making your decision. My thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family. Keep us posted on your decision.

  5. I think you said it best: "jump in and give." Years ago, I heard one of my editors advising a young reporter with a personal issue: "Take the best of what you have to give, and then GIVE it, and let the chips fall where they may." Connection, opportunity and growth beget more of the same. Comparing ourselves to others, acting on fear (we may feel it, but we don't have to act on it), and holding back because of perfectionism truly squeezes the life out of the life we have. I have grown the most and increased my opportunities and connections when I have simply "lived it," offering what I have to a project, ministry or relationship. There is a joy, peace and confidence in simply moving forward; a power that is hard to put into words. All of this, I believe, needs to be undergirded with prayer, and choices made within the boundaries of priorities set.

  6. Susan, I was unfamiliar with Stephen Ministry, so I Googled it to learn more. I don't know you beyond what you share on your blogs, but I get the sense that you'd do quite well as a Stephen Minister. So, share your gifts.

    Personally, I am like Starla. A fear of failure or fear of looking foolish hold me back, both professionally and personally. I am making an effort to just "go for it" more often. I'm thinking of keeping a journal of times where I held back because of these fears, and of times where I threw caution to the wind even though I was fearful. Hopefully, the success stories will outnumber the fear of failure stories as I learn to let go.

  7. Hi Susan,

    Tonight at work I shared with a colleague that my greatest anxiety in life is thinking of the day I face God and have to answer for not using the gifts He gave me better than I do. It is a sobering thought, and far from comfortable. Yet I know I have come a very long way in my own journey to facing life's challenges with faith and creativity, and yes, more joy than I could ever have imagined.

    I want to encourage you to seriously consider Stephen Ministry training. I earned my certification about 12 years ago. It is strenuous and emotional and time consuming, but I believe that with the insight you've gained through all you've experienced, you would find Stephen Ministry most rewarding both as a care giver and for the enrichment it would bring to your life.

    As to whether you are equipped for this challenge, please believe that if you feel called and go forward with this, God will surely provide whatever you may lack. Bring compassion, love, and a willingness to be authentically present to people wherever they are, just as they are, and everything else will come.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!