Just Stand and Wait: Why (Sometimes) We Don’t Need to Work

I think many artists feel a sense of obligation to work all the time.  Surely there are myriad reasons for this feeling, but one of them, at least for religious artists, is the belief that artistic gifts are from God.  If I am convinced that artistic gifts are God-given, then I may feel a sense of obligation to God who gave me those gifts. 

This is what John Milton describes in his poem On His Blindness.  Having lost his sight, Milton was no longer able to see his own words on the page, no small loss for a man used to writing.  Written in the seventeenth century, the poem continues to resonate today.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
His stateIs kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Just as a blind poet may feel that his gift is “lod’g with me useless”, many other artists also go through periods during which, for one reason or another, it is impossible (or nearly impossible) to work.  The reasons for these periods are various, but regardless of how or why they come about, they are never easy.  There is deep pain that comes from hiding a gift.

 Fortunately, the voice of Patience reminds Milton (and us) that an all-powerful God who gives good gifts is hardly dependent on his people making perfect use of them.  And so Milton recognizes another way to serve: simply stand and wait.  Be ready to work again when you are able, but, for now, it is enough to be willing.

That Milton was able to write Paradise Lost several years after losing his sight and writing this poem, is testament to the fact that these periods of waiting need not become permanent.  By dictating the piece aloud to an amanuensis, Milton was able to “write” without seeing words on a page.  Even so, as this poem so powerfully states, there is nothing inherently wrong with the periods of inactivity that are sometimes a part of an artist’s work.