Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Jane Austen. Herman Melville. Emily Dickinson.
I am fascinated with artists that were underappreciated or undiscovered during their lifetime. I find myself reading about them, watching documentaries about their lives or trying to imagine how they would feel if they knew the effect their works had on society today.
Who would have thought that in 1851, the classic novel Moby Dick would have marked the beginning of the downward trend in Herman Melville’s popularity? Or that poems as insightful and beautiful as Emily Dickinson’s went undiscovered until after her death? Sadly, looking back through the years, we see many similar examples. I shake my head as I hear these stories and a wave of confusion, sadness and curiosity rushes over me.
If these artists were to learn of their current popularity, would they be content in knowing they eventually reached so many people, or would they be frustrated to learn they had missed the opportunity to “cash out”? If people in 1851 didn’t appreciate Moby Dick, or if Mozart could die a pauper and be thrown in a crowded, unmarked grave, what are we missing out on today that we should be paying attention to? What will future generations shake their heads at us about? How many people out there hold back their gifts out of fear of criticism, rejection and failure?
In an age where information flows so freely, it can be difficult to wade through all of it and easy to bury something important along the way. Some days I worry that I am missing out on what God wants me to be seeing. I have to trust that when He really needs me to notice something, He will make sure that I do.
It is comforting to know that years from now, people can still benefit from something we choose to pass by. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, a holiday staple for many of us that was a disappointment at the box office the first time around. God can use whatever He wants to reach out to future generations, even if we mess up by not paying to it when we had the chance.
Though some artists were not popular during their lifetime, their works served a purpose. We don’t need to affect the entire world in order to have a profound impact on those around us. The ripples from a seemingly simple act can have far-reaching effects, though we may never see them.
It reminds me that I don’t need to reach everyone; I just need to try to do what He needs me to and trust that He knows the answer to the eternal question—why? I don’t need to feel successful in a worldly sense to know that what I am doing matters. God can work amazing things through our willingness to reach out to others and to use the gifts He has given us. I hope that the many underappreciated and undiscovered artists throughout the centuries embraced that, but I have no real way of knowing.
Whenever I find myself on this train of thought, it brings to mind the last line of my favorite book, Middlemarch by George Eliot,—“Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
1 Corinthians 7:7
1 Peter 4:10