A while ago, I was lamenting to myself that I have not yet had my “big break” as an author or speaker (I know, it’s a bit ridiculous to admit). My first traditionally published book was released almost a year ago, with a big splash and then quiet, calm waters followed. Here I am, in the midst of winter, and I’ve wondered why there are so many other books that reach the top of the bestsellers list immediately. Where did I go wrong?
Before I go further, let me digress a moment and share with you that I read a lot of books. I review probably six books per month, which is quite a few, considering I have two small children under the age of six and both of whom have special needs. Most of these are very edifying, especially when they arrive from the Catholic publishing houses. But, on occasion, I read a book and once it’s complete, I scratch my head in bewilderment. How did this get to be a bestseller?
I realize that the arts are subjective in terms of what sells and what doesn’t, or what is popular and what isn’t. What’s somewhat discouraging to me is that so many popular books or movies or songs are really just amped up forms of empty entertainment. What happened to the classical arts? What happened to philosophy and Renaissance composers? What about the opera and ballet? So many aspects of the arts today are comprised of glitz, glamour, wealth, and popularity. It’s not about authentic beauty anymore.
But then I remembered that old cliche that was displayed in my sixth grade teacher’s classroom: What’s right is not always popular, and what’s popular is not always right. Of course, the subjectivity of art cannot necessarily be deemed “right” or “wrong,” unless it is a blatant expression of blasphemy or vulgarity. But I’m discovering that the popularity of certain books or authors or music artists or celebrities isn’t necessarily due to their extraordinary talent (though some of it is, to their credit). It’s more about what the populace wants, and unfortunately it’s often to feed their passions.
I’d like for our culture to leave the panem et circenses behind us and return to classical arts. What if those of us who create did so for the sole purpose of glorifying God in His wonder, rather than to sell tens of thousands of copies and make a lot of money in the process?
I’m one of those people who would like to join the fun of constant publicity and maybe my own radio show. But maybe that’s not God’s dream for the gifts He’s given me. Maybe, for all of us, our talents must begin with humility and a deep longing to share with the world the gift of beauty, so that those who encounter our work will be uplifted to the heights of Heaven.
A few nights ago, I was praying about this interior dilemma, because I have felt like such a failure as a writer these days. With no new books on the horizon for publication, it seems that maybe I just got it all wrong—again. Then the Lord spoke to my heart, “Seek to be legendary, not popular.” I thought about that for a moment and considered the myriad poets, painters, and composers who were considered “losers” in their day but have since become legendary in the gift they left the world.
Seeking to become legendary is not some form of pompous arrogance, as if that is the end goal of our lives. A legend is someone who leaves behind a legacy, something of value that remains long after s/he has passed into eternity. For some, that means mission work. For others, it’s the founding of a school. Still others, it means to raise a holy family. And for artists, it means to leave our work in God’s hands and allow Him to do what He pleases with it.
Popularity rises with the tides of fads, but it fizzles just as quickly. Being popular often means we succumb to the wiles of the world in some form, which means we often sacrifice what is right for the sake of being known or valued in the eyes of secular society. On the contrary, seeking to become a legend takes time. It means our work is quietly, but deliberately, offered to God on a daily basis. Much of our work is hidden, the result of intense suffering and interior trials. But what we leave behind is the indelible mark of one who truly wanted to give back the gift of his life to his Maker, just as he was once given a gift to share with the world.
Join me this year to discover the ways God is calling us to build our legacies and leave behind the ways of the world.
This article originally appeared at Integrated Catholic Life.