“Your talent is God’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift back to God.” –Leo Buscaglia
The title of this post is something I wish I’d said to myself on countless occasions; and something I thought about after meeting an unassuming elderly man in a nursing home [note: I can’t take credit, “shine on, you crazy diamond” was discovered by the almighty ‘Google Machine,’ lol].
The man, a true diamond in the rough, filled me with immense gratitude for natural talents, and reminded me that it is not talent alone, but opportunity and nurturing relationships that determine whether or not talent gets a chance to shine in the world. Here’s what happened:
I ran a health workshop for nursing home residents in urban Washington D.C. Everything and everyone looked generally crumpled (alternate descriptions include wilting, grey, stale). I flitted in wearing my go-to bright pink “presentation dress,” moving quickly, speaking quickly, and feeling a little bit like a song bird (or a small-scale tornado) in an old black-and-white photograph where just one person or thing is colored in. Colored in pink.
First order of business: restroom. The shabby toilet ran continuously. To flush it, you had to hold the handle and basically convulse (shake it rapidly to “catch” a flush), or, open the tank and investigate. I chose to convulse. Discreetly, I whispered to the matron, “maintenance may need to take a look at that toilet” but she laughed loudly, proclaiming: “it’s always like that baby! The valve don’t work – gotta open it up. Hope you knew that.” No, I explained. I convulsed.
The workshop took place in the “lunch room,” a large multipurpose box with a low ceiling, two tiny windows, brown-and-mustard-yellow tables and grey metal folding chairs. In the adjacent room, separated by a doorframe, there was a radio set to a Christian talk show. It was never actually turned off. Nevertheless, I got started. Most of the 15-odd attendees were listening, but passively. But there was one exception: to my right, leaning against a wall, stood a man in red plaid shorts, a royal blue tee, and a tan cap who had a glint in his eye. He nodded knowingly with most slides, maintained a thoughtful eye-squint-head-tilt posture and answered each one of my “audience participation” questions clearly, correctly, and immediately. His energy was just so different than everything around him. I wondered if he was a retired scientist(?).
Then it happened: after I explained that African-Americans have the highest prevalence of hypertension nationally, he asked: “Dr., you say ‘African-Americans,’ but that is a very big and diverse group. We’re all different genetically, so do you mean Africans from Africa who live there, or, Africans who came over during that 200 year period? And, isn’t the diet we eat now different to the diet we ate back then, 200 years ago? Has anyone ever looked at the differences between blood pressure here and there, then and now? I think history and diet have something to do with this…”
WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? This man was a genius!!! He basically just broke down three topics of a major scientific inquiry: historical reasons African-Americans may be salt-sensitive, the dynamic interaction between genes and environment, and epi-genetics i.e. the health legacies we carry based on ancestral experience. One of my mentors in medical school even developed a million-dollar DRUG based on middle passage survivorship! I answered his question with a grin on my face and fullness in my heart – I’d found a kindred spirit!, someone with eternal curiosity and a propensity for “lateral thinking,” i.e. connecting the dots few people see as related.
Afterwards, I approached: “sir, I wanted to introduce myself and thank you. You’re brilliant! If you don’t mind me asking, what line of work were you in?” He extended his hand, smiling. “Great talk… I was a meat-packer all my life.” Breath. Fast-blinking. “Well whoever you worked with was very lucky – you’re brilliant.” The words that immediately popped into my head were “opportunity” and “nurturing.” I wondered if he’d had either.
A meat-packer???!!! That gentleman’s natural intellectual ability shone as brightly as his eyes did that morning, his brain almost involuntarily turning the information I delivered around and spinning it into a brilliant question, one that top scientists spent billions of dollars (and years) answering. His natural curiosity resonated with mine. His inclination towards lateral thinking resonated with mine. Even his fashion-decisions (bright blue!) resonated with mine. So HOW did we end up on such different professional paths?
I suspect it is a combination of opportunity and nurturing.
Natural talent is so beautiful to behold. It cannot be suppressed by a grey room with limited light – it will shine on its own -- just needs a spark of activation. And if it finds its way to a platform commensurate with its beauty (a great professional position, a high-level competition, a grand stage of any kind), it is because of the consistent, nurturing hands and hearts that molded it, and the God-breathed opportunities that beckoned it to shine: the schools and mothers, summer programs and grandfathers, nurturing friends and coaches, grandmothers and professors who invested time and love, setting ever-increasing standards that inspired that talent to grow. And if it doesn’t find its way to a platform commensurate with its stunning glow, perhaps there’s an external system devoid of nurture and opportunity that arguably, failed it.
That day, I found a diamond in the rough! I am flooded with immense gratitude for the opportunity to see it shine but the stark reminder that opportunity and nurturing often direct one’s life path was not lost on me.
If we find ourselves on a platform of any kind, in any field, it is not only our talent on which we rest (though talent can certainly help keep us there). No, it is the culmination of nurturing opportunities, relationships and systems that persistently buoy and buttress our natural ability until it finds a perch on which to flourish. I’m immensely grateful for my buoys and buttresses.
In the end, it is not “…what YOU do with [your talent that] is your gift back to God,” it’s closer to “…what WE/YOUR TEAM do with [your talent that] is your gift back to God.”