Jessica Banks (mommymonster) wrote,
Jessica Banks

Meditations on Talent and Triteness

Today was stewardship Sunday at church, that wonderfully awkward annual institution when we squeeze people in circuitous, subtle and uncomfortable ways to contribute more money. I'm a member of the Religious Services Planning Committee, so some of this duty fell on my shoulders. In our church (not sure if the terminology's the same in other UU communities or other churches), but we talk about contributions in terms of time, talent and treasure (the last being a very arcane and old-fashioned shorthand for money, the same way politicians talk about the cost of war in "blood and treasure").

I opted to talk about talent, because in a lot of cases, that's all I (we) can afford to give. Sure, I can run a service; sure, I can direct the choir; sure, I can make a necklace or two to contribute to the service auction; sure, I can teach Sunday school or read a story to the kids. It adds up to a lot of "sure"s, sometimes, and like my mom before me, I occasionally find myself overcommitted, in the way that people with a lot of competencies do by becoming the problem-solver of first resort in many people's minds (what I call "the curse of competence." I think I've written about this before, but if I haven't, I will soon).

Because I'm a big history nerd, and the Roman Empire is part of my obsession zone, I knew that "talent" also used to be a unit of money, but I didn't know how to work that into my speech. Enter the online Oxford English Dictionary. I have access, thank all the gods of grammar and etymology, because I'm adjunct faculty at a university. Otherwise, I could never afford the subscription fee to this magnificent resource. I still aspire to own the real deal, in print, stand and magnifying glass and all. But that's a someday thing.

As I accessed the database, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was starting my speech with something which I, as a former Freshman English prof and current writing Nazi, was about to employ the overused, exhausted, trite old chestnut of starting a paper with a dictionary entry. Sure, it's the mother of all dictionaries, not the American Heritage Dictionary or whatever crap they're stocking at the campus bookstore these days, but still. It felt pretty lame.

Until I got to the entry, and immersed myself instantly in the beautifully twisty path of language as a living, changing artifact of history. *Such* a cool story. The essay practically wrote itself. I've attached it below.

But the next time I assign a paper, I'm actually going to *suggest* going to the OED Online for a gander at some of the key terms. Not that they'll probably get half of what they're looking at, but still. I'm getting pretty jaded about what kind of education and world experience these college kids are coming to me with. Hopefully some of them will continue to surprise me from time to time, to keep me from getting snide.

Meditation on "Talent"--Stewardship Sunday--03/07/10

As we divvied up the subjects of time, talent and treasure among us at the last Religious Services Committee meeting, I jumped at the chance to talk about talent. This was a totally self-serving act, of course--I wanted to justify to myself and all of you how financially poor families like ours could contribute something just as worthwhile and valuable as a regularly donated amount of money.

But how, precisely, was I going to do this? It all sounds well and good out loud, but that little voice deep inside still whispers from time to time: "You can't cash a song at a bank. Reading a story to the kids isn't going to build the new church."

So it was with two of the talents that identify and motivate me that I started the search. To twist Descartes' famous statement slightly, "I am historian; therefore, I know weird stuff." What I knew from all those years of bible trivia contests in Methodist Sunday School was that, back in ye olden times, a talent wasn't just a knack for doing something, it was a measure of money. Exactly who measured what money how turns out to have been a matter of some considerable variation: between just two regions of Ancient Greece, it could be as different as 56 lbs. 14 oz. and 88 lbs. 12 oz., which when you're weighing money, is a difference worth quibbling over. Later on, it became a type of currency: the Babylonian silver talent was equal to 3000 shekels; the Greek talent contained 60 minae, or 6000 silver drachmae. Once it was standardized, a Mediterranean-type person could literally "count on" that money--it was "a money of account."

And that's something that folks want to have, the more the better, right? So "talent" came also to refer to a "wish, will, desire, or appetite" for something. In an Anglo-Saxon story from around the year 1300 called the "Travels of the Mind," we hear that, "[Th]an bigan [th]am tak talent / To wend in to [th]air aun land," or "Then started to grow the wish to travel in their own land." In a later play, one character says, "Yis, lord, I am at youre talent." But because money and envy can be the root of all evil, "talent" picks up the meaning of a negative wish; "ill talent" became interchangeable with "ill will," a much older Anglo-Saxon phrase frequently followed by the words "towards the King," for some reason.

But money isn't only problematic; it's also scarce. So "talent" also comes to mean a rare quality. English writer John Heywood wrote in his 1562 Proverbs and Epigrams: "The talent of one cheese in mouthes of ten men, Hath ten different tasts." Because English, and all European, culture revolved around Christianity at this time, and the Bible was newly accessible in English, Jesus' parable of the talents in the book of Matthew was in the minds of many. In this story, the talent in question is an amount of money, but most Christians believed that talents of all kinds--money, desires, and, the newest definition to develop, natural abilities--"were divinely entrusted to a person for use in their lifetime." As another 16th century author said, "They be the talentes that god hath lent to man in this lyfe, of the whiche he wyll aske moost strayte accounte."

It's finally at this point that "talent" comes to be associated with physical or mental abilities, either inborn or acquired through long practice and effort. But it's clear that these abilities still have status as a commodity that can almost be monetized. The author Cowper says in 1781, "Though Nature weigh our talents, and dispense To every man his modicum of sense," leaving the impression that our abilities could almost be placed on a scale opposite gold or silver, and hold their own in value. In fact, this church acted on this notion just last June, when my lifelong experience with choral music was given monetary value (much to my still-ongoing surprise) by the board's choice to make me choir director.

All this comes as a great relief to me, as I'm sure the end of this etymological journey does to you. And I'll be so bold here as to say that this is a congregation of many talents. We have members who can hold forth on topics from anatomy to zoology, and everything in between. We have artists who can work in paint or pixels, wool or words, beads or baking, satire or sympathy, all with the most inspired and inspirational of results. We have instrumentalists, gynecologists, physicists, gameologists and psychologists. We have a million ways to coax out a smile, from Chuck's chainsaw to Steve's fire sticks. And the smiles themselves are worth as much as gold and silver, shared freely and banked for a rainy day: Brenda's or Lina's smiles when they told us they were cancer-free; Helen's smile as Kim pushes her in the door; Geoff's smile at...just about anything.

These are our talents. And I believe they measure up to any treasure.
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