TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - Western religions foster a peculiar sort of humility that shames us into being humble and discrete to indicate our piety. A perfect example is when, every few months, there is a $100 bill folded inside a one dollar bill in the St. Nicholas offering plate. It only happens around sacred holidays, and never in the shoulder season when there are a dozen locals in the pews, but it happens frequently enough, with the same style of folding, to indicate there is someone out there who doesn't want anyone to know how much they're giving when they do make it to church.
Not so in many Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Buddha's birthplace is gilded in gold leaf, with gold coins and big bills left very publicly by pilgrims from around Southeast Asia. Hindu shrines are clothed and decorated with as much opulence as a family can afford. Making merit in a Theravada Buddhist temple is an extremely public gesture - it's not showing off or bragging, it's a good thing for everyone and everything to see exactly how generous you are, to recognize how much you can contribute. (It should be noted that in Thailand, where a dozen students in any given classroom might answer to Lek, descriptors like Short Lek, Fat Lek, Smart Lek, Ugly Lek, and their opposites, are commonplace; however, they are used without the judgment and negative connotations we have: she is tall, she is short, she is smart, she is fat, and it is okay to recognize that. Likewise, it is okay to recognize rich, poor, opulent, and impoverished without personal judgment).
Not to say either way is superior, but our humility has caused a strange strangulation: we are so afraid to be seen as arrogant, superior, egotistical et. al., we are actively misleading about our skills, talents, and capabilities. Where this becomes interesting is the egotism of a skill-set overshadowing the reality of a talent. To whit: people have at various times complimented me on being a good musician. I have, after all, earned a Masters of Orchestral Instrument Performance, Emphasis: Tuba. And I worked my tail off for it. Nothing musical comes naturally to me. I cannot dance or move with music, my adlibbing skills are atrocious, and if you ask me to play something, I'll need, at the very least, meter, mode, timbre and style, if not a sheet of music, before I can blow a note. Still, I've developed the skill of playing tuba enough that I could, potentially, brag about it and make someone feel inferior and that is a shameful, ungodly thing.
By contrast, we all have innate talents: God-given gifts that come absolutely naturally. My mom tells a story about a lady who once said her gift was a pleasant countenance, which inspired my mom to take credit for being a good audience. She can hoot and clap and cheer anyone, in any location or capacity, and it comes absolutely naturally. I have a gift with kids: although I am generally phobic about people under 18, when I began volunteering at the A+ after school program, I had remarkable success keeping wild little hooligans on track. So after 16 years, I can play what's put in front of me, but with no training I can work with kids who drive senior educators batty. Who'da thunk?
But the shame is, stating a talent - I'm (inherently) pleasant, supportive, good with kids - sounds like egotistical bragging over a developed skill, which is a deplorable transgression. Yet we are generally reluctant to even recognize the difference between developed skill and inherent talent, let alone assert our talents enough to develop them. And we do this to ourselves because we must be - regardless of our faith - good, humble, and pious individuals who don't make anyone feel inferior. What I wish is for a way to brandish our talents blatantly and joyfully. Just imagine what we could accomplish if, instead of shamefully stashing them, we could proclaim our talents, embracing and celebrating our individual gifts from God?
- Russell Richardson, MM, MFA, St. Nick's (Tahoe City) tuba player and publicist