Abilities and stewardship

Abilities and stewardship

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

7:45 a.m. listening to two old NPR clips on Paul Potts (6-15 and 6- 18) I think: It isn’t that he showed them, it is that life showed them. That phenomenal voice emerging from that humble exterior is a symbol of so many people who are not known for what they can do because of some trait or circumstance that does not lend itself to coexistence with fame.

In his triumph I see a vindication of what I have been told so many times by the guys – everybody counts, most efforts and successes are not recorded on this side, fame is to worth as flash is to substance, or rather as the tip of a wave is to the mighty ocean. The three famous judges (I take it that they are famous, though I’ve never heard of them) felt comfortable judging Paul – and the others – as though they by what they were rather than by the position they hold were competent and entitled to judge, rather as I as editor could accept or reject a manuscript because of my position regardless whether I was competent to judge it on its merits.

It is just like people confusing their sex appeal with some virtue of theirs, or confusing their talent with personal worth. I don’t know how to say it clearly enough: We are carriers of talent, or sex appeal, or whatever; we are stewards of what was given us. That is a very different thing from thinking we merit what we have been given. At best we can live up to it; we can, so to speak, earn it. We can’t deserve it by right of birth.

Why is this so hard to say clearly? We see it easily enough with an aristocracy of birth, whether given by title or by bank account. No one deserves to be born rich or born Earl of Whoozis. It is the kind of thing that cannot be deserved. Neither can being born with a genius for singing or writing or painting or anything be deserved; it can only be vindicated, so to speak, by how one lives that genius or their talent.

Put it another way. How would one deserve to be born Leonardo da Vinci, or Isaac Newton, or Nils Bohr? Within the context of a given life, no one could deserve to be born with anything. But even in context of a multi-generational scheme (reincarnation could be seen as one’s essence going through repeated generations of iteration on this side, each generation being somewhat similar, somewhat different, as happens in the genetic equivalent) in which one might be said to deserve (i.e. to carry in) certain talents or advantages, the question of stewardship remains. Goethe famously said he would not have been such a fool as to have drawn a blank rather than a prize for a life – but he then used his time on earth, putting those abilities to use, drawing connections in a very public way. For every Goethe there were and are uncounted millions of “mute inglorious Miltons” – and none of this is a waste.

Mark Twain hit on this somewhere, it occurs to me. He talked of someone being more celebrated than Shakespeare on the other side (in heaven, he said) because there his capabilities were weighed rather than the results of his opportunities. Within the limitations of Clemens’s worldview, this is correct enough.

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