Talents vs. Gifts

What are your deepest gifts? The answer may not be so obvious as you think. In our culture that values doing over being, achievements over relationships, and strength over vulnerability, our truest and deepest gifts can often be buried beneath our talents.

My whole life I have been recognized as a talented individual, and certainly have no shortage of accomplishments. So many of those moments feel hollow to me now – especially when I see truthfully how I was performing to please others and not always in touch with the deepest movements of my own heart. I hesitate to say it, but I am grateful for moments of futility and failure, powerlessness and pain. Agonizing though they can be, they provide an opportunity for the hard shell of my perfectionism to be broken open, so that I can discover God’s treasures buried within, where I tend to feel so much shame – but where in fact he has made me in his own image and likeness.

Most of my life, I tended to use “gifts” and “talents” synonymously. It was in reading the deeply wounded and deeply wise spiritual author Henri Nouwen a few years ago that I discovered a distinction: “More important than our talents are our gifts. We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust, and many others. These are the true gifts we have to offer to each other.”

As some of you know, this Dutch priest, brilliant yet troubled man that he was, found his heart repeatedly transformed by his experience in Ontario with the L’Arche community, together with his friend Jean Vanier. L’Arche provides a home and a dignified existence for those considered by society to be mentally disabled. Nouwen was amazed to discover that they were more in touch with their humanity than he was. He sung the praises of their beautiful giftedness: “But since my coming to live in a community with mentally handicapped people, I have rediscovered this simple truth. Few, if any, of those people have talents they can boast of. Few are able to make contributions to our society that allow them to earn money, compete on the open market, or win awards. But how splendid are their gifts!”

We certainly live in a culture that values talents, achievements, and accomplishments. Consider how absolutely devastating it is for so many people these days as they go through the aging process or watch a loved one do so. Obviously, these changes of season in our life are always the occasion for healthy grieving, and are never easy. But these days some people simply cannot bear it. They get stuck and struggle to see any personal dignity amidst the experience of not being able to do the things they used to do, or exercise the talents they once had, or do the fun things they once did. Seeing giftedness amidst vulnerability and weakness is especially hard for modern-day westerners. What John Paul II described as “The Culture of Death” has seduced us with a distorted understanding of the human person that exalts talents, doing, and achieving over and above giftedness, being, and relating.

Some of us who have cared for loved ones with dementia have discovered a deeper treasure. Amidst devastating sadness, we witness the long and relentless and inevitable decline of talents. The person becomes less and less capable of meaningful rational or verbal communication. But when we learn to look past the outward weaknesses and losses, we discover that emotional and spiritual connection are still very much possible – sometimes in surprising and deep ways. We are certainly invited to acknowledge our own fears and insecurities, our perceived need for control, as we experience deep feelings of powerlessness. It is often only then that we are really ready to receive and discover God’s gifts deep within ourselves, if we are willing to stay present and engage.

I am a man of many talents, but it was only in various moments of powerlessness that God invited me to rediscover who I really am. I’ve always loved the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, but these days they resonate with me more than ever:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In my own journey, I am only beginning to rediscover my true gifts. Among other things, I am beginning to recognize that I am a sensitive, intuitive, empathic person, capable of connecting deeply and showing transformative kindness. I look back and see that these gifts have always been there, sometimes more in the forefront, and other times safely locked away and deeply buried beneath my multi-layered defenses.

No doubt, our areas of deepest gifting from God are also those that the powers of darkness attack early and often and (at times) with great malice and ferocity. The evil one sees God’s glory shining in us, and attempts to mar it. We often falter in allowing these deep treasures to emerge to the surface because we are held captive by the subtle lies that the devil has whispered to us from our earliest years: Others will always let you down. No one will really understand you. It’s safer to hide yourself. See what happens when you trust someone! You better stay strong and successful – if you fail, no one will love you…

I could go on and on. It is for each of us to discover and renounce these lies, allowing Jesus to rescue us and unleash our truest and deepest gifts.

We often feel safer and more comfortable donning our “likeable” talents like a mask, hiding our true self. In my experience, this spiritual masking is far more of a barrier than the physical masks most of us wear during this time of pandemic. With those physical masks, I have found (to my pleasant surprise) that the eyes are still the window to the soul, and deep human connection is still quite possible! But only if you and I are also choosing to open up and be present. It takes great courage to allow access to the vulnerable places of our heart, in which our true gifts are found. When we are ready to do so, God’s wonderful treasures await us.