Monday, November 14, 2011

"Man, what are you doin' here?"

You know the parable about the talents -- the one Jesus tells in the New Testament? A master gives one servant ten talents; another five and a third, one; each according to his perceived worth. The first cat wheels and deals and doubles the ten; the second doubles the five and, the third, worried about dropping it down a sewer grate or something, buries the one coin he was given. They each come back to the master and he is pleased with the first two, especially because he is now in the black about twenty-five talents, but he calls the third "wicked" tosses him out of the house into the dark where he can do some gnashing of the old choppers and think the whole deal over whilst he shivereth.

I am, of course, paraphrasing.

There's a lot going on in this one, but one of the points is that if you are entrusted by the master (or The Master) with talents (in the parable, talents are money, but let the metaphors flow . . .) you should use them -- even take risks to develop them. If you don't you're sort of spitting in the face of the one who gave them to you.

It got me thinking about the way people see this whole idea. In Billy Joel's "Piano Man," they "put bread in [his] jar and say, 'Man, what are you doin' here?'" In other words, he's too talented for the dive he's playing. (And, by the way, the whole joint is filled with people who either think they should be or who are trying to become something more than regular, working people.)

John Morgan, 1823-1886
I suppose that works for music. I guess it would be a shame if someone with Billy's enormous talent had ended up a career piano-player in some hole in the wall.

But what does it mean to develop talents? I get the impression that most people think that, if you are a genius, for example, you should do big things in the world and win big awards for doing them. In other words, a genius should be ambitious. A genius should change the world in a big way and stand in a spotlight.

But does a person who has great talent and who choses not to be ambitious, wind up being "wicked" like the talent-burier in the parable? What if the genius uses his intelligence only to raise sane kids? -- or to make art for the elderly folks in the nursing home down the road? What if a creative genius uses her talents only to teach a tiny group of special education students per year in a small school? Is this all "burying the talent" -- because she is not writing books about her methods and traveling the world to lecture at teachers' conventions?

People often judge those they know -- who have talent -- and they say, "She could have been so much more . . . " And there are two types of talented people: those who didn't work hard enough and failed (or quit or fell short) and those who just never felt the need for fame or accolades.

But the way I see it, the only way to bury one's talents is to simply not to use them.

What's more of a success, winning a Nobel or inspiring one student to choose a career in your discipline? Who deserves more praise, the guy who keeps a small family business running, as his relatives did, decade after decade, for a hundred years or the turbo-charged CEO of a Fortune 500 company?

Of course, this is all coming from a forty-three-year-old who plays the drums in bars. You could argue that I'm an quack who's trying to stir up his own panacea with the pen. And I might stink at what I do, as far as you're concerned. Still, I hit the old skins as hard as anyone, in any venue, anywhere in the world. Noise, I can make.

As I said, I guess it would be a shame if someone with Billy Joel's enormous talent had ended up as a career piano-player in some hole in the wall. Or would it? Isn't it enough that it is he "that they're coming to see, to forget about life for awhile"?

Horrors! Can success exist without the approval of the masses? No -- surely talent is wasted if one's trophy case doesn't bulge with brass figurines. I mean, it is pretty clear, for instance, that everyone who has won a Grammy Award or an Oscar has been incredibly talented. Right?


  1. It would all be so much easier if "success" and "good use of your talents" weren't so inextricably linked to "fame" and "fortune," wouldn't it?