Recognizing and Using
Your Unique Gifts and Talents
Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
© September 2011
In an article published in First Things,1 the late Cardinal Avery Dulles reflected on Blessed John Paul II’s concept of the “Law of the Gift”:
In a paper on ‘The Personal Structure of Self-Determination,’ John Paul II makes a further inference, based on the relational character of the person.…We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others. This ‘law of the gift,’ as the Pope calls it, is inscribed deep in the dynamic structure of the person as fashioned in the image of the divine. He confirms this insight by quoting from Vatican II: ‘The human being, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self’ (GS 24).
This essay will explore recognizing the law of the gift as one’s own giftedness, and utilizing those unique gifts and talents in service to God and others. “Your Giftedness” is a companion piece to a previous essay I wrote entitled “Your Created Goodness”2 which focuses on discovering and embracing one’s personal self-worth as being valued. Appreciating the value of one’s personal goodness and self-worth provides the framework whereby we become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others…as fashioned in the image of the divine.3
A Scriptural foundation for the law of the gift can be found in the First Letter of Peter (4:10 NIV): “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”
At this point, it might be a good time to consider these questions, “Have you ever given much thought concerning the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you?” Or, how to serve others faithfully? Or what is meant by God’s grace in its various forms?
The Random House Webster’s Dictionary4 defines varied as “diverse, different, variety.” God’s grace then is diverse and different; it is not identical for each person. Each person’s unique gifts and talents are just that, they are unique and varied. They are not equal or the same for each person, though they may appear to be somewhat similar.
In my 30 years experience of working with college students, it seems that too many men and women develop a type of narcissistic, spiritual navel-gazing, that is, they try to compare oneself against someone else, as if being superior or inferior to another. Usually, they start by looking to those on their proverbial left, thus they feel inadequate, or less than by comparison. Yet, when they look toward their proverbial right they feel so superior, or a sense of being better than that person.
The problem is, as I see it, that comparisons can only be made with what is similar, i.e., types of apples. You cannot compare that which is unique, defined in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary as “existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics. Having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable.”5
Each man’s or woman’s gifts and talents are not meant to be in competition with one another, but they are to be complementary, those abilities needed to complete the whole…that is to build up the Body of Christ (c.f., 1 Cor. 12:4-31 NAB).
Talents emerge and wane
In addition, looking back over the years, I’ve become aware that about every ten years, or so, new gifts or talents begin to emerge, while others may begin to wane or subside. Likewise, as I venture into my later years, I’ve discovered “senior” talents, or abilities, that I had no idea existed as a possibility when I was in my 20s and 30s.
Let’s look at what is meant when we refer to someone as having gifts and talents? They are a special, often creative natural ability or aptitude…a special ability.6 Some examples include the gift or talent for art, music, sports, compassion, dramatic arts, leadership, teaching, cooking, kindness, and a plentitude of others. As well, just as every virtue has a vice, or defect, so too, every gift and talent has a “dark side,” a defect, or its temptation, such as, deceit, dishonesty, manipulation, cheating, selfishness, and so on – a sinful side. Where one’s gifts and talents, then, are not being used in service to God and others, but to knock others down, they become self-serving, i.e., those so blinded by their successes that everything becomes, “It’s all about me!”
Listen to St. Paul exhorting his young protégé Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-7 NIV), “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
“To fan into flame” is like poking among the ashes in a fire-pit to find a glowing ember so you can reignite the morning fire. It’s as if St. Paul speaks to us through Timothy, “I’m reminding you to stir up the ashes off the God-given gifts and talents that already are within you. You have within you a spirit of power, not of cowardice or timidity.”
Have you ever experienced how in beginning to develop a particular gift or talent, there is an initial fervor, or surge of energy, but then things become difficult, one gets distracted and slows down or discontinues altogether? Too often we get stuck in the starting blocks and never get any farther. Don’t be a coward, a timid spirit, “fan into flame” the power of God’s spirit within you.
Filled with a spirit of empowerment, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed:
Every person must have a concern for self, and feel a responsibility to discover one’s mission in life. God has given each normal person a capacity to achieve some end. True, some are endowed with more talent than others, but God has left none of us without talent. Potential powers of creativity are within us, and we have a duty to work assiduously to discover these powers.7
What potential powers of creativity, or talents, are waiting within you? For each one of us, we “have a duty to work assiduously to discover these powers,” to fan them into flame with whatever gift and talent God has blessed you. Do you have an awareness of your potential powers of creativity, and what your mission in your life might be? This is a good question to reflect upon about every five years.
A personal time of spiritual awakening, a conversion journey, started in my mid-20s. I began reading the Bible as a personal encounter with God’s Word in my life. You might call it a “surprised by grace” moment, but one day, as I was reading a passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:11, 13, 15-18 RSV), the text seemed to read me – definitely an “aha” moment. Often such verses are referred to as power verses – a personal encounter with God’s Word – one that can change everything. That Thessalonians verse reads:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.…Be at peace among yourselves.…See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.…
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
That’s a power verse! And it has been a profound influence for my life ever since. This verse has provided me with an understanding of meaning and purpose; guided me with a sense of mission and ministry – to encourage one another…build one another up. Can you tell me who doesn’t need to experience encouragement, or being built up? Where can you not encourage someone, or build them up? Looking back, it wasn’t so much that I found the gift, as it found me. It is true that when you start seeking, searching and knocking, then you will have a better chance to find what you are looking for, even when you don’t know what it might look like.
However, once a person discovers a gift or talent that is when it starts to become more challenging, that is, to develop the gift or talent so that it bears abundant fruit. Often, it is a struggle, or as Dr. King proclaimed, we have a duty to work assiduously…And “assiduous” by definition means: constant; unremitting… working diligently at a task; persevering; industrious…8
Difficulties and struggles, by the way, are normal in life, especially when arduously working to develop one’s gifts and talents; bringing them to the fullness of their abilities. To be good at anything in life requires unremitting perseverance and self-discipline regardless of whatever hardships, difficulties or struggles one might encounter.
Let me provide a couple of sports analogies that illustrate this point:
Steve Garvey, the former first baseman for the San Diego Padres, was never cut from an athletic team in his schoolboy days. However, he was cut from the high school concert choir his senior year. His teacher told him he lacked the range needed for the school’s first concert program of the season.
But Garvey was a determined young man. He practiced and practiced with a piano accompanist until he improved his voice quality. He later was part of the choir team that earned best-in-state at the Florida state championship.9
A sports reporter once interviewed a famous NFL quarterback about what it takes to win. The quarterback had left college early to enter the NFL draft. During his career he was regarded as a tremendous passer, but not much of a scholar. So the reporter decided to ask him to react to some English prose. He began to read the following Jack London quotation:
I would rather be ashes than dust;
I would rather that my sparks should burn out in a brilliant blaze than that it should be stifled by dry rot;
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom in me a magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet;
The proper function of man is to live not to exist,
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them,
I shall use my time.
After reading this prose to the quarterback, the reporter asked him, “What does this mean to you?” The quarterback replied immediately, “Throw deep!”
So too in life –Throw Deep! – go for it. Go out to win every time in life. Too many people concentrate on avoiding failure; while too few concentrate on victory.10
Likewise, men and women need to throw deep in developing their gifts and talents; to use them to their fullest and not waste my days.
Magnanimity – the “lost virtue”
It was a personal epiphany moment when I discovered that this concept to throw deep actually refers to the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity is the “lost virtue” for which I had unconsciously been searching. Somehow I never heard of magnanimity as a virtue. I first came across magnanimity as a virtue in a December 19, 2007 ZENIT.org interview with author Alexandre Havard on “‘Virtuous Leadership’ for Everyone.”11 And, then, over the next four months I read several other works that each featured magnanimity as a virtue of excellence.
While performing a Google search on the topic of “magnanimity” I came across a paper written by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung that complements Blessed John Paul II’s “Law of the Gift” – We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others.12
Dr. DeYoung writes:
Magnanimity is a wholehearted readiness to attempt the great acts of virtue to which we are called, however impossible or daunting the task may seem and however much the attempt may ‘stretch’ us.
…[F]or Aquinas, this virtue and its operation are possible only through God’s gift of grace – a gift for which we are dependent on a God who is greater and more powerful than we are. Magnanimity is thus fundamentally conceived in terms of vocation and stewardship: it is a response to God’s call, and willingness to use his gifts.…13
A metaphor for discovering one’s gift and talent might be described as finding a geode in the desert. Initially, from the outside, gifts and talents seemingly appear very rough, and not much to look at, like the exterior of a geode. A geode, first, has to be cut open to expose the crystalline interior; next it has to be ground down, and finally buffed up and polished to make it shine brilliantly. This process is similar to developing one’s gifts or talents, a lot of hard work is required to make them sparkle. The self-discipline in training and practice initially breaks one down; then repetition of proper technique builds one up, until the gift or talent is honed into excellence. And it may take years to mature a gift or talent to the point of bearing abundant fruit, whether it is a 30-, 60-, or 100-fold seed.
St. Paul in the “Letter to the Romans” (Rm. 12: 4–13 NIV) writes:
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Every man and woman has a duty to grow one’s different gifts and talents, each into its fullness, and exercise them in contributing to the needs of others. How do you exercise your God-given talents to encourage others, to build them up, to magnify God’s glory in your daily living?
A dire warning, though, is pointed out in St. Matthew’s the “Parable of the Talents” (Mt. 25:24–29 NIV) about burying one’s gifts and talents, especially when it is done out of fear or intimidation. We read:
Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’…
Pope Benedict XVI in his weekly Angelus address (November 13, 2011) reflected on this parable…”With this parable Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to make good use of their gifts: God calls every person and offers talents to all, at the same time entrusting each one with a mission to carry out. It would be foolish to presume that these gifts are an entitlement, just as failing to use them would mean failing to achieve one’s purpose in life.”14
The vice, or defect, of magnanimity is known as pusillanimity – the fear-filled defect of the fainthearted that causes men and women to bury their gifts and talents.15 Those with a pusillanimous spirit, it seems, cringe from their own greatness more than from their own littleness. They are more afraid to let their own light shine than they are of the darkness looming around them. They are content with becoming less than the man or woman God created him or her to become – living more abundantly. In short, the pusillanimous man or woman denies the world their own unique gifts and talents; they leave this world a little bit less than it is supposed to be.
“Law of the gift”
There is a tremendous need for men and women to “throw deep” in life, to encourage the faint-hearted, to strengthen timid spirits. This is the “law of the gift” when we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others. Let me illustrate this point:
Once a wise old botany teacher was speaking to a group of young and eager students. He gave them an assignment to go out by the side of some lonely road and find a small, unnoticed flower. He asked them to study the flower for a long time. “Get a magnifying glass and study the delicate veins in the leaves, and notice the nuances and shades of color. Turn the leaf slowly and observe its symmetry. And remember: this flower might have gone unnoticed and unappreciated if you had not found and admired it,” he told his students.
When the class returned after carrying out the assignment, the wise old teacher observed: “People are just like that unnoticed flower, too. Each one is different, carefully crafted, uniquely endowed. But you have to spend time with a person to realize this. So many people go unnoticed and unappreciated because no one has ever taken time with them and admired their uniqueness.”16
This observation has special significance for parents, teachers, coaches, and for all those in ministry. Discover the unique individual differences in those with whom you come in contact that often go unnoticed and unappreciated. They need to be recognized, appreciated, and encouraged.
I wonder if you have ever given much thought to how easily we label people in our daily conversations? Labeling people is something most of us do without even giving it a conscious thought. Often, we label even ourself. But does this labeling encourage others, does it build them up? How about making a conscious effort to label others according to their gifts or their talents, labeling them by a virtue that they manifest in their life? Words are powerful, they can build up, and words can tear down; they can embolden a timid spirit, or snuff out a flickering flame. Intentionally, use your words to label the positive, affirming gifts and talents in others. Doing so just might be all the encouragement, empowerment and validation that a man or a woman will need to embrace the fullness of their gifts and talents.
There is a great lesson to learn from this teacher’s experience of a positive exercise of labeling:
He was in the first third grade class I taught at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, MN. All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million. His appearance was very neat, but it had to have been that happy-to-be-alive attitude that made even his occasional mischievousness delightful. Mark talked incessantly. I had to remind him again and again that talking without permission was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere response every time I had to correct him for misbehaving – “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.
One morning my patience was growing thin when Mark talked once too often, and then I made a novice-teacher’s mistake. I looked at Mark and said, “If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!” It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.” I hadn’t asked any of the students to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it had occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, very deliberately opened my drawer and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape and made a big X with them over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders. His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”
As the end of the year I was asked to teach junior high math. The years flew by, and before I knew it Mark was in my classroom again. He was more handsome than ever and just as polite. Since he had to listen carefully to my instructions in the “new math,” he did not talk as much in ninth grade as he had in third.
One Friday, things just didn’t feel right. We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed that the students were frowning, frustrated with themselves – and edgy with one another. I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.
It took the remainder of the class period to finish the assignment, and as the students left the room, each one handed me the papers. Charlie smiled. Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend.”
That Saturday, I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and I listed what everyone else had said about that individual. On Monday I gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. “Really?” I heard whispered. “I never knew that meant anything to anyone!” “I didn’t know others liked me so much!”
No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another again. That group of students moved on.
Several years later, after I returned from vacation, my parents met me at the airport. As we were driving home, Mother asked me the usual questions about the trip – the weather, my experiences in general. There was a light lull in the conversation. Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and said simply, “Dad?”
My father cleared his throat as he usually did before something important. “The Eklunds called last night,” he began.
“Really?” I said. “I haven’t heard from them in years. I wonder how Mark is.”
Dad responded quietly. “Mark died in Vietnam,” he said. “The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like if it you could attend.”…
The church was packed with Mark’s friends. Chuck’s sister sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Why did it have to rain on the day of the funeral? It was difficult enough at the grave side. The pastor said the usual prayers, and the bugler played taps. One by one those who loved Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water. I was the last one to bless the coffin. As I stood there, one of the soldiers who had acted as pallbearer came up to me. “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked. I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin. “Mark talked about you a lot,” he said.
After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting for me. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him.
“Thank you so much for doing that.” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”
Mark’s classmates started to gather around us. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.” Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put this in our wedding album.” “I have mine too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.” Then Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times,” Vicki said without batting an eyelash. “I think we all saved our lists.”…17
What an enduring influence Sr. Helen’s simple exercise had on her students. It reminds me of a similar type of labeling exercise that occurred while on a staff retreat when I was working in a university student life setting. We were given a set of file folder labels, one for each member in the group; we were asked to write down the virtue or gift each person most manifested. After some time to reflect, we went to each person and placed the label on their upper arm telling that person why we chose that particular “label” which we saw reflected in them. It was enlightening to overhear people’s comments on why they chose a particular “label” for someone, and interesting to listen to some people’s responses to that choice. Yes, I still have my list, the “labels” colleagues identified with me. They are helpful in reminding me often of what others saw in me; they help “snap me back” when I forget, or drift, settling for being less than I could be.
“Your Giftedness” is a recognition that each man and woman has God-given unique gifts and talents that are to be used to their abundance. As Blessed John Paul II exhorted, We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others.18
So in closing:
God said, “Your task is to build a better world.”
And I questioned, “How? This world is such a vast place and, oh, so complicated now. And I am so small and useless, there is nothing I can do.”
But God in all great wisdom said, “Just build a better you.”19
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
“The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1. Avery Dulles, “John Paul II and the Truth about Freedom.” First Things 55 (August/September 1995): 36-41, accessed on July 28, 2011,http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9508/articles/dulles.html.
2. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, “Your Created Goodness: Developing and Improving a Positive Attitude and Healthy Self-Worth – A Concept for Spiritual Wellness.” AppleSeeds (October 2010), http://www.appleseeds.org/Your-Created-Goodness.htm.
11. Alexandre Havard, “‘Virtuous Leadership’ for Everyone,” Zenit.org (December 19, 2007), accessed January 19, 2010,http://www.zenit.org/article-21334?l=english.
13. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Aquinas’s Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence: A New Measure of Greatness,” Faith and Philosophy 21.2 (April 2004), accessed July 29, 2010,http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/deyoung_rebecca_k/aqs_virtues_of_ackn_dep.pdf.