Leontyne Price was born in a small Mississippi town and traveled to New York to study at the famed Julliard School of Music. Subsequently she became the first African-American to star in top-rated operas, famous on every continent where opera is revered. Describing her training she said I “invested for many years in the principal” of my voice and then continued to the end of her career “singing on the interest.” I’d never heard anyone refer to interest, much less a talent, as other than cold cash.
But our whole life, not just our money is an investment of time, energy, and purpose. If we develop our talents thoroughly eventually we end the strain of trying to do better and better. There is a time in our lives, not when things are easy, but when our professional status is like gliding. All the energy expended previously is now keeping us airborne and productive.
This is the quality that distinguishes an actor who can play roles well into his 60s and 70s, versus one who lasts only so long as her talents are marketable. This is the ability authors gain when they continue to write good books and not just re-write the first big seller. James A Michener continued well into his 90s writing highly detailed historical novels. About Centennial he said with amusement, “After you read this you will know more about Colorado than you ever cared to know.” You could say that about all his works, but that is what made them great, the attention to minute details. He would do so much research that when he completed one project he had almost enough for another book. His vast personal knowledge based on research had the bizarre effect of increasing itself the more he used it. He was writing on the interest.
Martin Luther King, Jr in spite of dying at 42 years of age still lived on interest. He studied great literature and his speeches are filled with Biblical allusions and references to history. He spoke with what appeared to be little effort at all. His most-quoted “I have a Dream” speech is a literary gem replete with quotations from other works. That alone makes it worth literary study. Anyone can be a black activist, or a white activist as well, but not everyone can move millions to passion, purpose and hope. He had invested in great literature and became a literary force in the process.
Two friends of mine have been married 50 years. Not in the best of health now their marriage is supported only by interest. Because they have invested so much in each other’s lives and the marriage between them, they no longer have to work at it. Some couples act lovey-dovey, but not this pair. People frequently ask them about being happily married even when no one has previously broached the subject. In other words their investment shows.
Let me tell you the sad story of a friend of mine whose marriage collapsed after 30 years. She described it in the same terms we have used here, unaware of Leontyne’s prophetic words. She said she had devoted herself to her husband believing her marriage was a 50-50 proposition and for many decades investing in the “marital” bank, even neglecting her relationship with her children. Overwhelmed, one day she was forced to seek support for herself but looking into the joint account balance, she found it barely open. Not only had her husband not invested anything in their account, but he had been withdrawing her steady payments. The account, like her marriage, was closed. Marriage counselors, especially Christian ones, are often astonished by the numbers of Christian marriages that go under. This story sounds like a good explanation to me.
Itzhak Pearlman, famous first violinist, was playing one day with the orchestra when one string broke. Without missing a beat he finished the rest of the concert using only the 3 remaining strings. Gleefully, the audience rose to their feet in a cheer. This is called playing the violin on interest.
Sometimes success is knowing when to move on. You have never heard a 2nd rate song by Doris Day, at one time the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, and for good reason. She knew when to leave the stage. She has spent her older years working for the betterment of animals. Living on the interest also knows when to turn over the reins to a new generation.
This quality permits a tennis star leave the court when days of raw physical prowess are behind to become a great coach or talented sports observer. The same qualities that make a good football star can also make a good stock broker, or inner city minister. They are living on the interest.
When the investment of principal is not there, or it is inadequate, that also shows. The skater swings out too wide and catches herself on the board surrounding the ice; she jumps and nearly falls. The skier flies high but lands and slides into the spectators. We groan. In contrast the professional makes it all look so easy and effortless. That is living on the interest.
If you continue to draw down the principal of life eventually there is nothing there. Many elders wake up to find themselves 70 and broke! There is little energy left and the principal is gone. Many a pop star has endured 10 or even 20 years, then we learn they die in an alley somewhere, maybe alcohol, drugs, or profligate living has stripped them of both principal and interest. Every year a news reporter digs up a story on an aging celebrity recently found in the streets, flop house or rescue mission – a big name at one time – how they fell from fashion and are now living on the handouts from others. They thought the principal of their talent would never go away.
Living on the interest means taking charge of your own life. Judy Garland once complained that she worked herself to death but never saw a profit. Her schedule was grueling. When she died young, the people who spent her millions were identified but now it was too late for her. She, like Elvis Presley, had been fed drugs to help her perform under intense pressure; it cost them their lives. They might have been living on interest but the handlers around them were dipping into the principal of someone else’s life. Talent never dies, we enjoy both Judy and Elvis today, but it can be wasted, mis-used, and stolen.
Winston Churchill could have easily become a sour old curmudgeon when the Parliament rejected his leadership after the 2nd World War, but he had learned that you can take your principal with you. He wrote many English history books receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Interest can be spent anywhere and any time, but the principal is yours and you can carry it with you wherever you want to go. You are the boss of your principal.
Our stories are not so dramatic but they can be just as instructive. I am always a future-oriented person, building, studying, working towards the future. Then when I was about 62 I woke up – Hey, I said to myself, I am living in the very future I have been working so hard for. I need to start living right now and I did. I started living on the interest of life invested in education.
1. What investment of your life (remember we are not ever talking about money here) has really paid off?
2. Reflecting on your own life, is there any investment of time and energy that proved to be a complete waste?
3. There are 2 stories here about marriage. While the details are sketchy, can you speculate on what caused one to succeed and the other to fail? What do you think about the idea of “investing principal” in a personal relationship?
4. In our tragic stories here of Judy and Elvis we can empathize with their efforts and their talent. Can you speculate on what they should have done to stop being used so badly? Have you ever been used and called a halt to it? What were the consequences?
5. Leontyne Price and her brother both became famous, he as an admiral in the United States Navy. What do you suppose was common in their upbringing in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi that brought this pair of black children to such accomplishment? What can we do for our children to set them on the path of valuable living?
6. How is it that “talent never dies”?
7. The author told of a time when she turned her life around and started doing things differently. Have you ever closed down one part of your life and gone on to something else? Was it hard to do? What prompted you to that decision?