A few weeks ago a man named Alexandre Havard came to speak at the school about Virtuous Leadership. His talk was fantastic – basing much of it on one word: Magnanimity. Ok, you just had to say the word three or four times, didn’t you? And rightly so because it’s not a word we use often. Or at all. Which is a crying shame because it’s such a great word and is chock full of meaning. Magnanimity is the striving of spirit, mind and will towards great things. It’s being ‘high minded’ or ‘noble’ in spirit and in truth, and honestly it’s a word that could stand to be front and centre in our society as well as in our personal lives.
You see we tend to focus on the small, the bad and the ugly, instead of the good and beautiful. We look at ourselves and see the warts and defects and when we do that, focus only on what’s ugly about ourselves, we aren’t living in the truth. We acknowledge our failings for sure, but we shouldn't concentrate on them, just as we don’t fixate on our talents and credits either (which would be something akin to conceit and megalomania). No, we strive, as Christians, to be honest in dealings with ourselves and with others, which means having a balanced view of the goods as well as the uglies within ourselves. That means understanding that it’s ok to say, “I’m good at wine making, even though I’m not an expert. I enjoy it and I’ve made some darn good wines.” This isn’t conceit, it’s simply stating the truth as you know it, just like Flannery O’Connor stated the truth to a shocked audience when she was asked, “why do you write?” and answered, “I write because I write well.”
Would that we all had that kind of honesty with ourselves. I certainly struggle with it. In the homily this past weekend the deacon spoke about how hating ourselves doesn’t do us any favours, but is rather a snub in the face of God’s creativity and love – because He made us, buckteeth and all. Caryll Houselander talks about how God has chosen to create us, specifically, out of the innumerable potential of people whom He did not create and goes on to talk about accepting and seizing “upon the fact that what we are at this moment, young or old, strong or weak, mild or passionate, beautiful or ugly, clever or stupid, is planned to be like that.” It changes things when we understand that what we are is meant to be that way. How God must rejoice when we recognize and strive to know our talents by investigating them and then multiplying them for His Kingdom. That’s magnanimity at it’s best and we tip our hat to Our Father in heaven when we not only make use of the gifts and talents he has given us, but when we use them well and expand them, just as the story of the 10 talents suggests. “…To him who has, more will be given.”
Of course this does not mean that we don’t make mistakes, we absolutely do. We take wrong turns and make stupid decisions that affect ourselves and other people, but the truly magnanimous person doesn’t stop there and wallow in a puddle of his or her own misery. She picks herself up and says the same thing Thomas Edison said after he’d missed creating the light bulb once again, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Because if we give up in that moment we lose more than just the blood, sweat and tears that went into that specific decision or wrong turn, but we could miss out on our mission and/or vocation. The purpose of our life tends to flow out of our talents, out of those things we find that genetics, nature and/or biology – in other words, God – allow us to do very, very well and to just give up and turn our backs on those gifts can be devastating to our lives as a whole. We’re like the high school quarterback who throws his last game because of a silly bet and spends the rest of his life wondering where he could have gone or what he might have done if he hadn’t done so. In other words, we’d regret it. Mightily. As Mr. Havard declared it isn’t the mistakes that haunt the magnanimous person, but what plagues him/her are the things that aren’t done out of fear.
In that case, a healthy dose of courage is needed, not only in beginning to identify talents, mission and vocation, but also in making it through the failures, and the shame. As Brene Brown says in her book Daring Greatly, “…to put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation – that’s vulnerability” and vulnerable is not a comfortable place to be. Yet it is part of the ‘human condition’ and so what of it. Chesterton was right when he stated anything worth doing is worth doing badly. It’s worth asking yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if I do follow my dream of being a pastry chef or a film star? Failure? Perhaps, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing is usually the fear that people won’t like what you've done and won’t like you in the process.
At this point the question isn’t so much “will people like me” but is more “can I live with the failure or with people not liking me?” I would hope to hear the yes’s resounding throughout the hills and valleys, but in reality, in my own heart the answer is more like a feeble…maybe…hopefully…I think so. Ah, nobody said the whole process would be easy, in fact I guarantee you it won’t be. If it is, you’re not doing it right. Following your heart, gifts and talents will tax you in places you didn’t think you had, and will require every last drop of courage and resilience to put into action. But if you don’t like the thought of what it will cost you, the alternative isn’t pretty either. I’ll paint you a picture – running away from your own particular genius inevitably leads to a life of unhappiness and fear, a quiet, mousy, dark, confined space where, like a two year old, “No” becomes your favourite word and nothing is ventured and nothing gained. It’s a sad, lonely and angry place to be, and oddly enough it’s a world whose citizens actively choose to reside there. We don’t end up there accidentally – we end up there directly through our own free will; choosing to avoid life, love and growth, that’s how.
And may I just say that God isn’t exactly pleased with that sort of life. He didn’t make us to huddle in a dark corner desperately trying to look invisible. He has destined each one of us for great things…for “power, love and self-control” so go out, test things, investigate, try, fail miserably, succeed and fail again. Be Magnanimous. You won’t regret it.