People of the Book Lumpen with Talent

The Onion is my generation’s Mad magazine. It is, ostensibly, a satirical website, and a funny one, but sometimes they’re so spot on they cross from funny into painfully true.

I read an Onion article last week with the headline: “97-year-old dies unaware of being violin prodigy.” The article stated that she spent her life “completely unaware that she was one of the most talented musicians of the past century. … She is survived by [three children who] will forever remain oblivious to the national treasure [she] would have become had she just picked up a violin even once.”

We all have hidden talents never found, talents that would improve the quality of our lives and all those we love. Whenever we stand before our maker, She will tell us what a shame it was that we never made cholent or tried a certain sexual position. Perhaps this is what HaOlam HaBa (the world to come) is, the place where our potentials are unlocked, and we have eternity to realize them.

There are fortunates of this world who realize their full potential, and when they do, you realize how paltry theirs are. The rest of us struggle our lives long to unlock it, and we all see people whose success shines like the sun in comparison to our own, yet to us they seem miserable mediocrities. We fantasize about all we’d do with their opportunities, and most unjustly, we have to be nice to them because they, not we, hold keys to our further success — which they grant or don’t grant at their whims.

There have been a hundred billion human beings. How few thousands of them realize their greatest talents? The world rewards the superficially facile who use their gifts to please their superiors and uphold the established order of things. We call these people “gifted,” but the truth is that the gifts they realize are often their least consequential. They never have to realize the full extent of life’s frustrations, and therefore never know how to use their gifts to accomplish the most good. They can’t help it, their gifts shield them from knowing how best to use them.

One figure who best used his gifts was the philosopher Eric Hoffer, an essayist and aphorist for all time, who happened to be a longshoreman during the day. While so many intellectuals rot away their potential, writing in jargon that disguises simplemindedness, university was no option to Hoffer — an orphan from skid row. No one ever explained better the roots of ideological simplemindedness that leads to the formation of dangerous mass movements. “Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.” “Faith in a holy cause is … a substitute for lost faith in ourselves.” “Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some.” “In exchanging self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless … is boundless.” “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for himself, the more justified he is to claim all excellence for his … holy cause.”

In an age of Trump and Bernie and mass unemployment, the superficially gifted may be the first upon whom a new kind of regime takes its vengeance. How greatly we have need to recognize the Eric Hoffers among us, not the radical academics of the 21st century whose followers quote them like cult leaders, but liberal public intellectuals whose prescriptions are suggestions rather than battle cries. Hoffer’s solutions were not revolutionary but humane: “One of the marks of a truly vigorous society is the ability to dispense with passion as a midwife to action — the ability to pass directly from thought to action.” “Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul, where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.” “It is futile to judge a kind deed by its motives. Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.” “It almost seems as nobody can hate America as much as native Americans. America needs new immigrants to love and cherish it.”

What breeds resentment is the humiliation people feel when they don’t realize their best selves. In 2017, they give themselves over to a cause which tells them the self doesn’t matter. In Hoffer’s time, he noted with truth that working classes did not join protest movements because they had meaningful labor that gave them a sense of self-worth. How different it is today. Hoffer, who knew whereof he spoke, knew that the working classes were “lumpen with talent”‘ We must find a way to give ourselves work of purpose and meaning; we must love ourselves or die.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

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