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Green Flamingos, Nelson Mandela and Courage

Over the last few months I’ve noticed green flamingos around Starkville. They started popping up unexpectedly on bridge railings, electric boxes and the like, your typical vandal fare. But, they were some pretty well-designed vandal fare. These repetitive stenciled green fowl were nicely composed and sufficiently funky — something a designer would enjoy. And, it ticked me off.

It ticked me off so much that I was poised to launch one of my infrequent, but soul-cleansing rant posts complete with a few of the following points:

1. Kids these days.
2. Great. My tax dollars are going to have to clean that up.
3. That whole underground starving artist thing may seem glamorous, but it’s, well, NOT.
4. Get a job!
5. It may look like art, but it’s actually a misdemeanor.
6. Your talent is a gift. Make it count.

Yep, I’ll admit I was ready to unload, but that’s not the essay I’m writing. An overloaded schedule (and maybe some poor time management skills) stepped in and allowed those uncensored thoughts some time to germinate. Although I may still feel the same way on many of the points, they’ve also reminded me of the need for a shift in thinking.

“Your playing small doesn’t save the world.”

It’s from a quote by Nelson Mandela. It’s been floating around in my brain since I read it in a transcript of a commencement address several years ago. I can’t escape it. And, before I knew it, my impetuous rant turned into a post about courage. It’s been a while since I’ve written about the pursuit of my 2010 theme word. Perhaps I’ve been too immersed in exercising some courage in a few areas of late (where exercising equals being tossed into the deep end and hoping your swimsuit top doesn’t fly off.) I suppose that the laboratory takes priority over the lecture series in life lessons just as it often does in the traditional classroom.

I read in last week’s Starkville paper that the green flamingo vandals have turned themselves into the police department. They are exactly who I imagined they were — a couple of art students at the university making their mark on the world, literally. They are offering restitution and performing clean-up duties in hopes their records can escape with only minor blemishes. I’m sure their parents are hoping the same, and that their dollars spent on higher education will not go to waste. End of story.

Only not.

I’m sure there are more personal elements to the situation, to which, as a mother, I would likely be sympathetic. As an artist, I’m sure even more sympathetic. As a person, quite challenged with the realization that talent deserves courage. The broader quote from Mr. Mandela says this…

“Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t save the world.”

This from a man who has seen and lived at the pinnacle of authority and power as well as the despair of imprisonment, a man who HAS changed many aspects of the world around him. My first reaction to green flamingos was to say… Your talent is being misplaced. Your education is a privilege many in the world aren’t offered. The opportunity to learn in the arts is one many in the world don’t experience — or at the least they experience it with makeshift tools and eagerly devote themselves to the instruction knowing it may be their only hope to rise from desperate living situations. The superfluous materials of stencils and spray paint are luxuries many in the world can’t afford because they need rice or flour. While my first notion was to remind those young students of these facts, my more in-depth realization is to remind myself. To challenge myself against laziness. To challenge myself against cynicism and pessimism. To challenge myself against pity and compaint. To challenge myself into embracing big gifts.

I’m talented, as each person is in unique ways. And those talents aren’t entitlements or rights. They are gifts. Remarkable gifts. It’s so typical to diminish them. To be shaken by others who diminish them. To deny them. To apologize for them. To waste them. To shirk them. To make them seem small. To use them as if they WERE small.

“Your playing small doesn’t save the world.”

Even if the only world I’m saving is the one where I sit every day, I’m realizing that whatever talents I bring to bear on that world require courage. The world where I sit deserves a courageous talent, one that is used wisely and generously, without fear and without apology. To make those gifts count in whatever tiny sphere I apply them is my privilege. My responsibility.

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