Saturday, January 18, 2014

`The Single Talent Well Employ'd'

I know a child who from birth has been reminded of his exalted destiny. He is special, exempt from the niggling constraints of manners and morals. As you might expect, he is a perfectly insufferable human being – impulsive, petulant, aggrieved, manipulative, humorless, thankless, unapologetically demanding. In his company your job is not merely to satisfy his whims but anticipate them. His parents have created a monster in their own image, not a Manson but the run-of-the-mill sort we hope to ignore, whose true destiny is to be forever unhappy and to share his unhappiness with others. In the best thing I’ve read online in months, a post titled “On the Virtue of Not Being Special,” Tony Woodlief writes: 

“Many of us just have to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to live well. To craft beauty, to care for those who need us, to live honorably—surely these are the elements of a great life…” 

Four paragraphs later he adds: “Greatness will not bite you on the ass.” Woodlief’s prose isn’t flashy – that would sabotage his argument -- but he has a gift for expressing memorable thoughts in plain language. He eschews the excuse-making language of psychology. He surprises us with wisdom – surprises, because the words are conversational and unaccompanied by ersatz drama. He doesn’t preach, and includes himself in all indictments. See “the hard work that is living well” and “…each of us is crafted to give something of ourselves to a world crying out for redemption.” One assumes this comes from experience, in living and writing. 

Woodlief recalls the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30) and says “At least the faithless servant hid his talent under a rock. Where did I spend mine?” Dr. Johnson, forever doubting his gifts, often meditated on the parable. In a subtle reversal, he writes in “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”: 

“His virtues walked their narrow round,
  Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the eternal Master found
  The single talent well employ’d.”

1 comment:

Guy Walker said...

Yes Patrick, I get the whole seeing infinity in a domestic grain of sand etc, the usual is certainly sacred, but… There's a polarity with a somnolent acceptance of the slippers and pipe at one end and the petulant, attention seeker at the other. But what happened to 'Do not go gentle into that goodnight'? How is the man with more than one talent to react to Woodlief's homily?