What Is Greatness?

GreatnessSuccessful people of every age have been able to be in tune with the societal values of their time. They’ve been able to identify the right time and place parameters for success. Their contribution to this world carries on beyond the year, the decade or the century.  Their impact has been far greater than superficial formulas and 15-minutes of fame rather they have made positive contributions that have been called upon again and again.  Greatness has to have the capacity to travel well from one era to another.

Greatness doesn’t always produce immediate success. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick at the height of his creative achievements but it didn’t sell well. Unable to support himself as a writer, Melville worked as a business clerk. Eventually, the culture caught up with his work and applauded. The work of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote the classic Walden, went unnoticed in his day as well, and he died in obscurity.

There is often a gap between immediate success and eventual acknowledgement and because of this, we often say that great people are ahead of their times, but are they? When the renowned piano teacher Nadia Boulanger was asked whether she believed great, innovative composers are ahead of their time, she replied, “Why don’t we just say that the audiences are late.”

Great people often represent the beginning of change and because of this great people may seem to be unique, isolated and even out of touch. As a result, the depth of their contribution and their full worth may not be recognized for decades and even centuries. This happened to Leonardo da Vinci. Many of his major accomplishments and ideas, such as the airplane, the helicopter, roller bearings, air conditioning and the self-driven car, weren’t even comprehended until 20-century technology became available.

There are people who possess another form of greatness, about which questions of fame, success, and recognitions by contemporaries or later generations are entirely irrelevant. These are people whose greatness results simply from the nature of their being and need not be translated into external accomplishments. They don’t have to write symphonies, paint pictures or write books. For these people, greatness is lived solely out the inside, through their thoughts and feelings. Not through their actions. Their stories don’t make for dramatic biography. The significance of their lives is not what happens to them. It’s not what they do or what they produce. Rather, they lead lives of inner silence

They represent the other side of greatness without success or fame. We don’t think of them, “making it” in societal terms. Yet they have a total commitment to the best of life and the betterment of society. Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote, “One can be helped by a great man even when he is silent.”

Some of these quiet greats have been religious contemplatives, whose lives provide an affirmative answer to the question philosophers love to ask: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, has it made any sound?

Others are not religious per se, but they may have only limited contact with the wider world. Your sweet and generous next-door neighbor who is loved by the whole community may not be remembered by history after she’s gone but in terms of real personal greatness, her profound ability to enliven the value of love in others makes her as great as Marie Curie. It’s just that her territory of influence is less comprehensive. However, through her developed qualities she teaches greatness to her family, friends and thus she deeply influences her world.

Therefore, in the history of great people, the distinction is not so much between greatness manifesting itself in the small arena of life and in a very large one.

Greatness is normal, it’s natural, it’s necessary, and it’s certainly beneficial for us all, although it may have little to do with fame or even success. While success is dependent upon external circumstance and local criteria, greatness is an inner contract between the individual and the universe to create and discover deepening qualities of life and how best to express them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “According to the depth from which you draw your life, such is the depth of your accomplishment, manners and presence.”

Great people are those who allow greatness to blossom. It’s not so much the kind of activity they’re involved in, be it music, gardening, raising children or finding the cure for a disease. It’s the effect they have on all of us. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re well known or not; great people can create effects even on the quietest levels of life.

There’s no doubt that we need greatness in our society more than we need any other single human or natural resource. Fortunately, for perhaps the first time in history we can think about the possibility of an entire society of great individuals. Anyone who is willing to take on the responsibility of his or her own greatness is giving the rest of us and all societies to come the best gift possible.

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