Simone Biles, Juliet Lapidos, and stewardship
The ongoing and entirely out-of-control furor over Simone Biles’ decision to step down from participating in this year’s Olympic games can be a little hard to wrap one’s brain around. Why do so many people feel they have to express a judgement, or even offer an opinion, on someone else’s personal decision—especially when that decision is a morally neutral one? Perhaps, as Charlie Warzel argues here, the brouhaha is symptomatic of a particularly broken and toxic culture of discourse, fueled by Twitter’s idiotic trending topics feature. There might be other things going on, too—Biles is acting as a symbol for the United States, and it can be hard for some people to forget that she has more dimensions than just that one. But underlying all the negative talk seems to be the assumption that, as a talented artist, Simone Biles has an obligation to perform, to exhibit her talent.
This debate has some interesting intersectionality with Juliet Lapidos’ recent novel Talent, which tells the story of Anna Brisker, a postgraduate student who is accused of wasting her potential because she has been working on the same doctoral dissertation (on artistic inspiration, no less!) for nine years. She finds it difficult to motivate herself to work at all; however, she recovers some of her drive while researching the career of Frederick Langley, a prominent writer whom she admires and who experienced severe writer’s block for more than a decade. Further investigation leads to the discovery that Langley did, in fact, work on some projects in the years before his premature death, and that his apparent writer’s block was really a form of vengeance against the expectations of his domineering, tyrannical father.
The book draws heavily on the Biblical parable of the talents. Jesus recounts this story in the Bible’s book of Matthew, chapter 25; you can read it here. In Lapidos’ novel, various characters compare both Brisker and Langley to the parable’s lazy servant, who did not realize a profit on the resources that were entrusted to him. A strong parallel is made, in the novel, to the talent referenced in the parable, which is a denomination of money, and the talents that artists and other creative people have.
It is an important question for anyone who is gifted with a special ability or skill: how to use this gift? What is the proper way to go about stewarding one’s talents? Lapidos’ book leaves open-ended the question of whether talents were squandered in the cases of Anna Brisker and Frederick Langley. Laziness and revenge come into play in their cases; Simone Biles isn’t showing anything like that. What she is doing is stewarding her talent by not using it when she isn’t in optimal condition, and when other people’s expectations give her reason to believe that she’s being exploited. “That just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people”, she has said, of her decision to withdraw from competition in Tokyo.
Artists don’t just turn on the talent whenever other people want them to. They aren’t some kind of sink faucet. Ultimately, how an artist uses their talent is between them and God. No one has the right to compel an artist to use their talent in a particular fashion, or for a specific purpose, or at certain times. Doing so robs artists of part of their humanity. No matter how much we might want our favorite band to release an album on cue, or our favorite gymnast to continue competing, those decisions are not ours to make.