Hidden Depths

I wish I had some. You know, like every self-respecting fictional character worth the paper she is printed on. Secret talents that none of the other characters expect her (or, indeed, him) to have that are revealed when necessary to help the plot along. Languages spoken fluently; artistic abilities honed to perfection but only reluctantly displayed; athletic or scientific or business acumen to be unsheathed unexpectedly to exquisite effect. Instead, I have hidden shallows.

"Oh, yes, I was on the high school swimming team." "Oh, were you any good?" "Of course not. The best I ever did was to make the alternate for the women's relay team to State. I got to go to the meet, but I didn't get to swim." Or: "I used to like to draw a lot." "Oh, did you get anything printed?" "No. I tried once or twice to submit a drawing for one of our college posters or t-shirts, but nobody ever liked any of my designs. I painted a trash can for our high school honor society, though." Or: "I really like cooking, especially Thanksgiving dinner." "Oh, do you cook a lot, then?" "No, most nights we usually have pasta or rice with a fairly easy topping. My recipe repertoire is actually fairly limited." Or: "I have this blog that I've been writing for about a year and a half." "Oh, do you have a book contract yet?" "No, just a handful of [deeply, deeply appreciated--I love you guys!] followers."

One of my colleagues said something at our staff meeting on Monday this week that has been rattling around in my head making a nuisance of itself ever since. We were talking about Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (published 1943, after Zweig and his wife's suicide in 1942), and my colleague was remarking on how many great people Zweig had known and how exciting it must have been to have lived in Vienna during the pre-War Golden Age of Security, Psychology and Kultur. "Everybody now," my colleague said, "wants to be a Somebody, but the truth of the matter is that we're actually all Nobodies. Just because someone has a digital camera doesn't mean he's a great photographer. Most of us will have no effect on history whatsoever."

He's right, of course. Most of us alive today, even the ones cultured enough to enjoy the opera and the theater and the insights of psychoanalysis and all of the other products of the pre-War Viennese Golden Age, are Nobodies. Nothing we do will ever be of any real significance; nothing we produce--not blogs, not books, not drawings, not athletic successes--will ever be anything other than irredeemably minor, if that. The most we can hope for (or so my colleague seemed to be implying) is the grace (and education) to appreciate the great works that others produce. Meanwhile, we should content ourselves with being insignificant and talentless. So there.

And yet, I know that he is wrong, too, if not on an historical, then most definitely on a theological level. We are all souls. We all most definitely count. As human beings, we have rights; as children of God, we are loved, everyone of us perfectly him- or herself, exactly as God intended us to be. But (niggle, niggle, niggle) why is the me that God has made someone who can't also have hidden depths? Just once (okay, probably more than just once, but once would be a start), I'd like to be in one of those dinner party conversations that goes, "Oh, yes, I used to do such-and-such," and be able to answer the inevitable comparative (inevitably in my head, if not also in my interlocutor's mouth) query: "Were you any good?," with a definitive, "Yes! I won State." Or: "Yes, I have a whole drawerful of t-shirts with my designs on them." Or: "Yes, I just made a three-course dinner for some of my friends the other night." Or: "Yes, my blog-based book will be coming out later this year."

It is just possible that I do have hidden depths and don't realize it. Because, of course, they could hardly be hidden from me. Also, that I don't tend to count as talents or accomplishments many of the things that I have achieved (e.g. I did win State and, indeed, Nationals in Latin Grammar--alas, it does not make me as good an editor as I would like to be), perhaps because I actually accomplished them. I want other people's depths. Or I want other people to be surprised by mine, which, I suppose, sometimes they are, which I might notice if I weren't so busy being envious of their depths, hidden or otherwise.

It's funny. I oscillate between actually being willing to accept that St. Me might have a few things that I like about her (her taste in music, her design sense, her willingness to experiment with her teaching, the fact that she's been keeping a blog successfully for well over a year) and obsessing over the list of things that I wish she could do (you know this list; suffice it to say that being a medalist at a national-level tournament is right up there), just as I oscillate between believing my colleague about our all being Nobodies and nevertheless being convinced that it is still possible, somehow, for me to be a Somebody and that I'm just a late bloomer. Like Hildegard. She only started writing down her visions in her early forties. I've still got time to make it onto the world-historical stage, right?

Yeah, right, who am I kidding? God may want me to be St. Me, but there is no guarantee that St. Me is meant to be anybody terribly important. Not like, oh, I don't know, my neighbor, President Barack Obama. Or my other neighbor (and fellow blogger), Sara Paretsky. Or my fellow parishioner, Carol Mosley Braun. Hey, do you think if I wrote my memoirs somebody might read them and wish that he or she lived in the Golden Age of Early Twenty-first Century Chicago? I know, it's not Vienna, but we do have some fairly impressive buildings. Not that I've been involved in any way with building them, except, that is, for my kitchen.

My legs hurt from fencing practice this evening and it's well past my bedtime. I think my puppy has the right idea. She doesn't care whether she is the best dog in the world (although she is, IMHO). She's just happy being herself, St. Joy. Kitschy, I know. But that's really the Golden Age we live in now, isn't it? All of us Nobodies.

Comments

  1. Wanting to make an impact on History is, and always has been, a dream for most people, because so few do. It takes just the right person set in just the time with just the right opportunities. But I still like Luther's vocational way of thinking about life. Through our vocations, professor, daughter, blogger, wife, author, mother, historian, Christian, etc. we can and do make an impact on history. It may not be the impact on History that many people read about it, but it is an impact that is greatly appreciated by those individuals whom you impacted.

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  2. Thanks, Christian! I was actually pretty irritated with my colleague for his comment about all us "nobodies". It seemed to me somewhat short-sighted on the value of human experience. I asked him at the time what his students thought of the observation, and he shrugged and said, "But it's true!" True perhaps in the Grand Historical sense, but less so in the sense of what makes life worth living.

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  3. It strikes me that your colleague's statement would probably have been true for Zweig himself, at least in the Grand Narrative sense. After all, no one can really know that they're a Somebody in their own lifetime (or at least, as big or small as Somebody as history considers them): Van Gogh was certainly a Nobody until the day he died, but now he isn't, and Isaac Newton is a bigger Somebody now than he was. Luther is interesting to think about here, too; he would probably say that we're all Nobodies and Somebodies at the same time, but the more important part is that we're Somebodies in God's eyes. We may yet be Somebodies in our fellow man's eyes, but we won't know that until history is written, so all we can do is what we are called to do, which is, I think, all the Somebody God wants us to be.

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