True greatness

 I was seventeen years old when I finally accepted that I would never be a virtuoso pianist. In a teary afternoon practice session, I gave up on Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1*, after a six-month-long battle with two-octave jumps and finger-twisting arpeggios. I closed the book and put it away, for good. I couldn’t do it.

It had nothing to do with believing in myself, trying harder, or making more time for practice. I had simply stumbled upon a piece of music I wasn’t equipped to perfect, and the admission of defeat tore a hole in me about a foot wide.

To this day, I have to battle a green flicker of jealousy when I see other people, especially young people, succeeding where I failed. I’ll stand on the sidelines and cheer for incredible athletes, gifted dancers, amazing singers, strong speakers, and almost (almost) anyone else who really shines in a particular field. But I spent my childhood dreaming of the day when I’d “go for gold” on the piano, and I’ve never quite forgiven myself for not having it in me. It’s especially hard to accept when other people do have the talent I wanted.

ImageWe’re treated to a barrage of “believe in yourself” messaging as we grow up. “You have it in you,” we’re told — if we only dig deep enough.

And maybe self-doubt did play a role in my falling-out with the piano, but you know what played the bigger — more decisive — role? My own level of talent. Granted, I was good on the piano. If I practiced more, I still would be, and could always find decent work as a music teacher or playing in a church somewhere. But I wasn’t great. And instead of graciously accepting my abilities for what they were and putting them to good use, I buried them.

It’s yet another of life’s many paradoxes that we can let pride and jealousy thwart our good ambitions.

This has been a recurring theme in my life: If I can’t be great, I’d rather not bother. I still catch myself at it, in so many areas. I will never be a fast runner, so why bother jogging at all — even though it’s good for me? I’m not the best writer out there, so how about I quit the charade and let the better writers say it for me? I’m not even the best friend, so why don’t I stay at home with the blinds drawn and let other, more loving people answer their phone calls? Heck, I won’t even sing karaoke because I’m not bad enough to be funny or good enough to be entertaining.

The idea of pouring myself into any endeavor and still coming out the other end only mediocre chills me to my core. Is that what real humility is all about, then? Cheerfully accepting that God may have given you only one or two talents, and he still expects a return on investment?

We so often think of ambition in terms of achieving greatness, but that shouldn’t be the point at all. The right kind of ambition is only about using what we have to do the greatest good we can right where we are. For some of us, that might be nothing more than playing hymns on a nursing home piano on Sunday afternoons, or teaching seven-year-olds the basics of theory. It won’t win the acclaim of millions, it probably won’t even get you noticed, but those aren’t the things that matter.

What does matter is running the race, fighting the fight, and hearing at the end the words that will make it all worth it, all the sweat and struggle and smallness: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


*In case you’re curious, this is what it’s supposed to sound like.


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