“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” ~ George Edward Woodberry.
In the middle of a busy day recently, I took a phone call from a long-time friend. As has become my very bad habit, I listened with half an ear as I tried to continue reviewing students’ documents on the screen in front of me. This working at home thing is terrible. When you’re at work you don’t feel guilty if someone steps into your office for a short chat. You get up and go to the coffee maker and make small talk on your way. The fact that you are in your workplace satisfies your commitment to the job. At home you feel guilty when you get up from in front of the computer. Very unhealthy.
But I heard the topic of the conversation very clearly, and it stayed with me even after the phone call ended. Everyone who knew my father knows that at his essence he was a story-teller. He managed to weave stories into his professional life, spicing up his Sunday sermons, sprinkling them into his classroom lessons, entertaining his family, using light-hearted messages to plant a seed. He would collect these stories from everyday life, jotting them down in his little book which always traveled with him.
Before dementia stole most of his memories, he would retell his favorite stories, often going totally off track. Like a Barbie doll with mis-matched outfits, his stories would have interchangeable heroes, or mixed up endings. While my mother was distressed to see her infallible Pearce losing track of his once legendary memory (that may have been a fantasy on her part, but never mind), the rest of us found his new conflated tales to be different, amusing.
But my friend’s phone call was focused on talent, and on the squandering of it. He reminded me of the parable of the talents and wondered if there will be some accounting for all of us, after this earthly life is over. Will we be reminded of the talents we left buried in the ground? Or will we be commended for using ours to generate more?
I have recently seen a couple of videos showing very young kids imitating some activity with great success. One in particular has a toddler mimicking one of those blow-up bendy gimmicks (the Google refers to them as ‘wacky, wavy, inflatable tube guy’, I hope you can visualize). It is hilarious and impressive to see the little child bending and waving in tandem with his flexible friend. But there is real research into the existence of ‘mirror neurons’, nerve tissue that helps the developing brain learn by copying, by mirroring the activities, facial expressions, attitudes of another.
Before my family left England to embark upon its excellent Jamaican adventure, the Church had a ‘send-off’ party for us. In typical English way it was a ‘tea’ – endless pots of tea were brewed, countless sandwiches and varieties of cakes. This was to contrast sharply with any future similar Jamaican get-together, where cooked foods of all aromas and tastes would fill the tables. But, having sat and watched my father in the pulpit each week from (I imagine) birth until that point, I knew that it was my job to make a speech to the collected church members. I was not yet eight years old.
The ear-worm that my friend planted in my brain this week had me wondering. What talents may I be squandering, or am I living to my greatest potential? It is sometimes other people who see our talents most clearly, and are the most disappointed when we seemingly fail to live up to them. But what are the benchmarks of success, and who is to say that we are not exceeding them?
We are titillated every day by amazing stories of people who overcome amazing odds to become highly successful,. It may be those who have been hit by terrible tragedies but have managed to turn them into a new life’s mission. A young physician who was homeless as a teenager and graduated the top of her class. The teenager who graduates with a PhD. And of course, there are the stories of those who lose all their money and then become millionaires once again.
But for every opulent success, every measurable moment, there are those who are doing amazing things in small communities hidden from view. There are people who think nothing of sacrificing to help another; of mentoring a young person who has lost their way; of living each day with a positive spirit that uplifts those around them. There is no ‘viral video’ of their actions. No home-town hero award ceremony for them. And who are we to say whether or not they are more of a success than a highly degreed, highly paid professor?
Perhaps my friend had me feeling guilty. What talents am I wasting? Am I fulfilling my potential? In our conversation we spoke of those who we thought should have achieved high office, but sometimes it is a matter of timing. Most women who are mothers as well as professionals know well the balancing act they have to manage every day. They can either pursue some stressful, competitive career path, or they can be a mother who is torn between earning a living and being present for her kids.
It is easy to look at others and wonder about the choices they have made, not knowing what else was going on behind the scenes. We do the same with our kids, or any young people in our orbit. How can they not see what they are capable of, what they could do with all the talent we perceive? But in the end each of us has to decide our own destiny (if we are lucky, and if we are given the opportunity), and make the choices we can live with.
My brother, thank you for getting into my head this week, for making me reflect on my own light, on whether I am indeed leaving some talents buried in the ground. But in reality there are times when we are acting in faith, trusting that the decisions we are making are for the best. Sometimes we are the most successful when we stop trying, when we actively listen to a friend who needs to talk; when we give a pep-talk to a student who is doubting herself; when we contribute without fanfare to a mission we believe in.
This weekend may you forgive yourself for not always living up to the expectations of others, but always striving to live your best life. May you touch another person’s life without even knowing it, and may you know the pleasure of dancing like a bendy blow-up guy! Have a wonderful weekend, Family!