A white stag was sighted in the highlands of Scotland a few months ago. The appearance of such a rare creature has been considered from time immemorial an omen in the mythology of many cultures. Kings and chiefs feared them as they were believed to herald the death of a ruler. The Celts considered them to be messengers from the other world, and their sighting was said to bring profound changes in the lives of those who encountered them.
White deer are not true albinos (as is often thought), but possessors of a rare genetic pattern that causes the lack of pigment in their skin and hair. Despite their reputation for bringing bad luck, it is often the white stag or hart that is the unlucky one. The last such creature that was sighted on the Devon–Cornwall border a year or so ago was shot by poachers and his head cut off, presumably for a trophy. Being noticeably different attracts attackers as well as admirers! Possibly every genius has discovered this. Joseph (as in the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) found that his outstanding gifting brought hostility and jealousy from his brothers.
Yet many of us still yearn to be brilliant, to stand out from the crowd, to make our mark on the world, to live a life of significance. Every artistic, musical, literary person longs to release to the world something that will endure beyond their own lifetime, to bring them immortality of a sort.
This is not exactly the same thing as wanting to be famous, to be a ‘celebrity’, which can become an end in itself. Even some assassins and serial killers have stated that part of their aim was to ‘go down in history’. A recent poll of schoolchildren found highest on their lists of aims and ambitions was ‘to be a celebrity’ or even ‘to work for a celebrity’. The nature of the necessary fame was not defined. Whereas at one time kids might have aspired to be a life-saving doctor, a life-changing writer or a life-affirming artist, today it seems sufficient to be ‘famous’ without too much value judgement attached.
This seems to be a 21st-century phenomenon, linked to the media culture we live in where people can become instant celebrities without the sweat and suffering that used to be the precursor. Geniuses have usually been hugely industrious, if not obsessive about practising and perfecting their art. Those who are renowned for having pioneered a new ‘school’ in their discipline have invariably mastered the old schools’ methods first. Their ‘difference’ was a creative choice, not an inability to ‘make it’ in the usual channels.
So what makes a person ‘different’ in a positive way, exciting the admiration of others? As Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, once said, ‘If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.’ A desire for excellence and a willingness to sacrifice to achieve it are usually the hallmarks of outstanding people. A high intelligence is characteristic, too. These people stand out, even as children. They are usually very focused, with a determination that pushes through obstacles, opposition and difficulties. Geniuses tend to fall into one of two categories: Conceptual Innovators, who think in bold, dramatic leaps and usually manifest their exceptional abilities early in life (think about Mozart or Einstein); and Experimental Innovators, who develop through study and trial and error, using their exceptional intelligence to acquire and examine knowledge and information in order to produce outstanding work. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but they help us understand why some people seem to leap into prominence like a flaming torch while others are gradually perceived to be exceptionally brilliant.
How does all this talk of genius affect us more prosaic mortals? We may never produce a masterpiece, but we still wish to make a mark that will endure. Someone has said that as every person is a unique individual, to be truly different you have only to be truly yourself. This is of course true, but so many of us start trying to conform and be like everyone else from such a young age that we no longer know who we truly are.
Some of us are familiar with the story of the White Rose movement during the Second World War, which really consisted of not much more than a handful of students at the University of Munich in 1943. The Nazi government in Germany was totalitarian to an extreme, controlling everything, relentlessly pumping out propaganda and keeping its citizens under the heel and under scrutiny at all times. Nevertheless, a small group of students led by a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, began to write and produce passionate protest tracts against Hitler and the Regime, and secretly distributed them across the cities of Germany. Their activities continued for about six months, with the Gestapo hot on their heels, until eventually they were caught, tried and found guilty of crimes against the state, and ceremonially executed by guillotine. Did they know this was likely to be their fate? Yes. Sophie Scholl, only 21 years of age when she was killed, made it clear that she, her brother and their friends had made choices that kept them true to their own convictions and beliefs.
The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive’ – the honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take the measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonising their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same places as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.
Sophie’s brother’s last words as he went to the guillotine was a shout, ‘Long live freedom!’
At the time of their deaths, the White Rose students appeared to have made only the tiniest mark on the ruthless machine that was Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, they believed they represented the true Germany, the land of poets and thinkers, and it seems they were right. In 2003 Sophie Scholl was voted by German readers of Brigitte magazine the most influential woman of the 20th century, and a few years earlier a national poll voted Hans and Sophie Scholl among the most important Germans who ever lived. Their legacy is immense, but it cost them dearly to swim against the tide, to make a statement against tyranny and oppression.
We define ourselves by our beliefs and choices, and then work these out in our lives, our occupations or vocations and our hobbies. However we choose to spend the time available to us, we can use it productively to develop our unique gifts and abilities. I recently came across this quote from Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’
I couldn’t put it better myself!