A Dialog on Greatness

My therapist, Rebecca Crabb, normally adopts a neutral stance. But this week, as I left her office, she seemed to be moved emotionally by what I had shared about my struggles with wanting to be recognized as a “great man,” as my mother repeatedly assured me I would be. As I said goodbye, Rebecca commented, “Keep up the great work.” Her use of the word “great” may or may not have have been intentional. Regardless, it prompted me to reflect more on the word.

Those reflections prompted me to post the following as a “status update” on Facebook:

Can someone be a “great” person? If so, what does that mean? Is everyone created “equal” in the eyes of God? If so, how do you reconcile that notion with the belief in greatness? What percentage of the population can be great persons? If someone is a great person is that person “superior” to others? Does greatness depend on excelling in a particular skill? Does greatness depend on being recognized by others as great? Can ego and ambition fit with wanting to be great?

In response only one person “liked” the post, though one other did comment, “Good thinking, Wade.” That response leads me to believe that few people felt that my post posed important, thought-provoking questions that are difficult if not impossible to answer.

However, five Friends did offer answers. A Deadhead with a highly developed sense of humor said, “Some of us content to be just GRATE.” And the others commented:

Saw this quote a few minutes ago. For me, it answers the questions. “I am in competition with no one. I have no desire to play the game of being better than anyone. I am simply trying to be better than the person I was yesterday.”

“People created in the likeness of God” mean having equal access to Godly character traits, like love, honesty, humanity, truth, justice, kindness, etc –nothing to do with “greatness.” Greatness cannot be aspired to, but occurs when one is recognized by peers as having made use and application of inherent character development well above normal in ways that advance humanity over personal fulfillment.

In my opinion just about everyone has something inside of them that makes them great. We all have something great about us, something that makes us uniquely who we are. One person’s greatness doesn’t have to negate another’s. Rather I think that we should all strive to appreciate the greatness in ourselves and in each other.

In response, I posted:

I cannot see a clear, easy answer to those questions. I am “better” than others with regard to certain skills. but that does not necessarily make me a better person. I may generally be a more moral person because I am less selfish, but that does not diminish the inherent equal worth of others. I can justifiably aspire to be recognized for having maximized the compassionate use of my talents, limited as they are, but I do not need to be recognized in order to be a great person. Yes, we need to recognize the greatness in others, while also recognizing their weakness. Emerson, I believe, said that one is great if one is true to who they really are. All of us fall short in that regard, at least from time to time, but some more so than others, at times admittedly so. Ajahn Amaro once told me to accept praise as “icing on the cake.” But sometimes it becomes the cake.

Then another Friend commented:

I think greatness happens when people are exceptional in some way – they share ideas that many people want to hear, they help usher in change that is sorely needed, or bring delight to many people. Or, a person can be great to just one or two people. Like someone may be a great dad or brother or friend. They were there for you and gave you what you needed to make your life better or they lead by example. That’s how i think of greatness. We all have differing perceptions; but, there are some people who many people agree are or were great people. Like Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Noam Chomsky, etc.

Today, I still feel that those comments don’t get at the dilemma that bothers me. So I posted the following new status update, which approaches the paradox from another perspective.

The best way to love oneself is to love others. To give is to receive. Being willing to die for another is the ultimate expression of self-love. But that benefit to the lover is most rewarding if it is a by-product. If we give in order to receive, the benefit is diminished. And when we love others, it is easy to anticipate the ultimate self-benefit and become self-centered rather than other-centered. Self-awareness, which makes humans uniquely human, is a blessing and a curse. It is a rich source of creativity and growth, but it easily leads to chronic self-centeredness, which is deadly. Resolving this contradiction is a constant struggle.

If someone is a great friend to “just one or two people” and they are true to who they really are, then perhaps they are a great person — in which case they are not great because they “bring delight to many people.” How we define “greatness” is critical. Yes, everyone has “greatness” within. But how many come close to fulfilling it?

The first definition of “great” in Webster’s includes the synonym “ample,” which is defined as “generous or more than adequate in size, scope, or capacity.” That sense of the word may be a good starting point.

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