Every so often I find myself truly inspired by someone I’ve come to know or witness. We’ve all had important figures we’ve tried to emulate. If you’re Catholic you’ll know that the saints are such a “cloud of witnesses,” who exemplify Christ-like living for us. And while we’re talking about Jesus, is he not ultimately the one all Christians are meant to model? Being inspired to emulate is good, but I’ve found sometimes inspiration can be a letdown.
About five years ago my boss’ boss asked our department to read a book called The Fred Factor. Fred worked for the U.S. Postal Service but he turned out to be more than just an invisible postman. The author, Mark Sanborn, discovered that Fred went above and beyond the call of duty. He introduced himself when Sanborn moved onto the block. He would hold the mail when he noticed Sanborn was out of town. He would even deliver a package sent to him from another courier when it was delivered to the wrong house. His friendliness, care and attention to detail inspired Sanborn, and The Fred Factor became a training tool for many companies trying to improve customer service.
Fred inspired me, so I began to go out of my way for others, to practice random acts of kindness, and to say hi when passing someone. It was wonderful at first but after some time I noticed that those traits of Fred’s I tried so hard to emulate faded away. What happened? Was I not good enough to become like Fred? The truth is, I am not Fred. I am Andy, and in the midst of my imitation of Fred I failed to notice the Fred traits that are in me: an outgoing friendliness, a desire to help others, and natural attention to detail.
Inspiration can be a letdown when we think we can become Fred, or Dorothy Day, or John Paul II, or Mother Teresa. You’re not Mother Teresa and you’re not supposed to be. You’re supposed to be you. God has gifted you with an array of talents unique to you. Are you using them or trying to hijack someone else’s?
The word “talent” got its meaning from the parable of the talents in Matthew’s gospel (Matt 25:14-30). In the parable a man entrusts his money (talents) to his servants. Each of them invests the talents in a different way. Two servants made more money for their master, but the one who, out of fear, invested none of his talents was admonished by his master. As the word has been defined by this parable, our talents have value and can be invested. Inspiration that leads to an attempt to emulate or imitate can disregard your talents, as I did when I tried to do everything Fred would do. You don’t get much return.
Those WWJD bracelets asking, “What would Jesus do?” can be misleading. Following Jesus’ example is good and the Christian thing to do, but mere emulation is not Christian. A better question is, “What should I do?” The inspiration you get from the witness of Jesus’ life ought to inform how you utilize the talents and gifts you have — this is investing your talents. You and Jesus have different talents, given to you by God for different purposes. But, you and Jesus also share talents that can be discovered and put to use. Inspiration should uncover the talents that already exist within you. Investing them (using them) yields the uncovering of even more talents.
What it means to follow Christ or to be inspired by your friends, the saints or modern figures is that you advance on your journey of self-discovery. Relish your inspiration and ask what it tells you about yourself. Allowing Fred the postman to inspire me revealed the riches within me, those talents and traits and good things I could share with others. God is accompanying you on this self-discovery, and being inspired by others is one way God aids in this discovery. And, more than likely, there are people around you who in some way are inspired by you.