2012-10-07

Who Are You?

What is your gift? What is your shadow? How do you be who you are? The third principle of Unitarian Universalism says, “acceptance of one another,” and that, of course, begins with self-acceptance.

Let’s start with a basic, simple approach to this issue. There’s a paradox I want to get to later. To get there, we'll begin with a straightforward point.

Consider this: Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, looked at a variety of fields and discovered a kind of magic number: 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours is what it takes to really become outstanding at something. If you worked at a particular skill – ballet dancing or a medical specialty or gourmet cooking – for 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, that’s 2,000 hours. At that rate, you’ll have 10,000 in 5 years. But for high-level skills, the body and brain don’t have the stamina to be really focused on them at them for 8 hours a day, five days a week. A dedicated athlete or physicist can sustain focused practice or study for maybe 20 hours a week – so it takes 10 years.

Gladwell looked at the world’s top violinists. By the age of twenty, they had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. The legendary Bobby Fisher was exceptional – he did it in nine. Ten years is about how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard chess practice. You can get really good at something in a lot less time – but, says Gladwell – the world-class performers in any field – playing ice hockey, sculpting, mathematics, poetry – have put in a about 10,000 hours.

That’s interesting. Whether there’s really something magic about 10,000 hours, or whatever the number is, what this reminds us is: no one can be good at everything. We get good at it by doing it – and we’re inclined to do it if we think we’re good at it – and the hours you put in perfecting your tremolo technique were hours you weren’t practicing your jump shot, working on a proof of a previously unproven theorem, or revising the 15th draft of your latest short story.

So: who are you? You can’t be everything. Whatever your gift, every gift comes with its shadow. What we aren’t and don’t makes possible what we are and do.

I can bring this point home to church life with a little parable from the great Universalist minister, Rev. Clinton Lee Scott. Rev. Scott played a major role in revitalizing the Universalist denomination in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In fact – side note -- he didn’t retire until he was 84 years old, and the last 15 years of his career, 1956 to 1971, he was here in Florida, serving as minister to the Unitarian Universalist church of Tarpon Springs. Clinton Lee Scott once penned this "Parable for Pulpit Committees” to illustrate the competing qualities that congregations seem to want in their minister.
"Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad. And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that put the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed."
Sometimes we say, “well, no one’s perfect” – when the point really might be better expressed as: no one simultaneously exhibits contradictory qualities. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, it’s not a fault to not have youthful exuberance. If your gift is youthful exuberance, it’s not a fault to not have the wisdom of experience. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car.

Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "Blessed Affliction."
Next: Part 2: "The Weakness Is the Strength"