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Greatness Redefined

Finding agency in your precious life

“We are all meant to shine, as children do.” - Marianne Williamson

Greatness is not what you think.

It's yours for the taking — really.

You've no doubt read articles on narcissism, and you're probably fed up with self important people. But, let's leave phoniness aside for a moment and focus within, because it is not narcissistic to pursue greatness in your life. Human beings are on this planet for a very short time. And, many of us yearn to be important in some specific way.

So, how's it done, if you’re not rich or famous?

First, look at how we lose our specialness by focusing on the lives of others.

The Celebrity Route to Greatness:

We look at celebrities and see specialness. As in Tom Cruise must live an interesting life. We look at all these stars, read about their loves, losses, children and more. They become a proxy for greatness.

The Sporting Route to Greatness:

Nowhere are people admired more than in sports. We may love a recording artist or a movie star, but the All Star in baseball, basketball or football is our ticket to greatness – by proxy. For instance, Morgan Freeman does not “belong” to Boston, but Tom Brady certainly does. That's why cheating is so problematic. We need sports clean so we can idealize. Like the great A-Rod, once they cheat, the most admired athlete falls.

The Money Route to Greatness:

America is the land of capitalism, and we do admire (and resent) people with money. The big house, the expensive car, the leisurely vacations, the way they are treated in public and at charity events; all this adds to their “greatness.” It's probably why colleges have produced too many finance majors in the past fifteen years. But, make no mistake, you may want more money in your pocket, but remember - the rich have problems and worries too.

This Greatness by Proxy is Malarkey:

Enjoy a good athlete, or a great performance, but keep greatness as a project unique to you. Each of us can be great. It is deeply human to find that path. It's a crazy and confusing world. There are seven billion people here and we are all, ultimately, wisps of protoplasm passing from birth to death. How can any of us achieve greatness? What does it mean and why does it matter?

The human drive for dignity – for greatness – is sidetracked when we idealize others like celebrities, or when we feel special for dysfunctional reasons. Let’s look at how you or someone you love can discover their greatness.

We Don't Need to Idealize:

One of great psychoanalytic thinkers of the last century was Heinz Kohut, an Austrian Jew who barely escaped Hitler’s rise to power.

Kohut tells us that all small children naturally idealize their parents. After all, they are small and helpless – and their mom and dad are huge and capable. Soon, they feel comforted in the “greatness” of mom and dad. Healthy children idealize their parents and feel bigger and safer by proxy.

Soon, they grow into school age children. They gain strength from the continued idealization of their mother and father. When this gets stymied, like in abuse or neglect, development can be injured. In adolescence, the teenager begins to see the cracks in his or her parents and criticizes. But, he or she has already internalized a sense of specialness through proxy. Parents are that important.

For better, and often for worse, we take that need to idealize into adult life.

We project it onto our mentors, our coaches, our athletes, our artists and our politicians. While it’s natural to look up to someone, we also are devalued when we do so. It is two sides of a coin. They are great/We are not so great. We gain a sense of greatness by proxy by admiring them.

For Kohut and the world, this process went tragically awry when a great industrial country – Germany – chose to idealize evil. I often wonder if his interest in idealization had it's source in this trauma.

Greatness Redefined:

Greatness is not synonymous with fame. That is an ancient and false equation. Yes, there were great leaders like Churchill, Lincoln, Jefferson, Ben Gurion, Mandela, Walesa and others. While their greatness was defined in the public arena, most heroic acts are infinitely more private. They're found in small lives that through personal agency are elevated out of the human will to do better. It is true nobility.

The religious traditions may make your eye roll. There’s too much idealization and exploitation in these institutions. But, the religious impulse came not from empire building, but rather from the discovery of human greatness.

  • The Bible tells us to take care of the poor and the widow. It pushes us to reach out to those outside our kin and take care of those in need. That’s revolutionary.
  • The Buddha tells us to center our minds – and that so much pain is a result of our own creation.
  • And, the ancient teaching of the Kabbalah claims that the world is a broken place, filled with fragments of Divine presence. According to this teaching, it’s up to each of us – each moment – to heal this place we inhabit.

Find Greatness in Your Life:

Unfortunately, religion often misses out on its potential by encouraging us to idealize its institutions as if we’re children. We need to be adults, with the spiritual goal of being a better person tomorrow than we are today. Our priests and rabbis; our athletes and statesmen; our actors and ourselves – each person has their own challenges.

Where do we find greatness?

We do this in the nitty-gritty of living.

  • Jacqueline is the product of an interracial family. She was brought up — and demeaned — in her community for racist reasons. Her older brother rejected everything, his family, his faith and his community. It’s understandable. But, his anger seeped in everywhere — into relationships and into his personal happiness. Jacqueline refused the victim role. She took the same pain and decided to agency and make a happier life. Now, as an adult, Jacqueline embraces people who are hurt, and she works to educate her church; she finds and keeps love. We all can empathize with the pain of her brother; but Jacqueline has stepped up to greatness. She is hell bent on healing herself and her world.
  • Sean and Lisa had a good marriage going; or so Sean thought. Then one day Lisa came home to announce that she was leaving for the love of her life. Sean broke down. Emptiness descended. They had a five year old, Rebecca. There was no use. Lisa had decided; she “found happiness” and it was over. Now, Sean had choices. He could fight for the marriage — useless. He could try to hurt Lisa through Rebecca — tempting, but not good for Rebecca. He could hire a tough attorney and PI and make life a living hell for Lisa — possible; but to what end? Through all the pain, Sean knew that Rebecca’s need for security and two functioning parents came first. So, Sean took agency, bit his tongue, negotiated a settlement collaboratively, got into therapy and proceeded to parent rationally with Lisa. Years later, feelings subsided, Rebecca did well and Sean found new love. Sean showed true greatness in my eyes. His friends and family wanted him to go for the kill; but Sean kept his eye on the prize — a robustly healthy Rebecca.
  • Sandy was an overweight kid. It came naturally. Her mom and dad had terrible eating habits, plus her genetics leaned towards obesity on both side. Middle school was difficult; Sandy began to pay attention. Her friends were on the thin side and she was decidedly overweight. Most people go in one of three directions with this scenario. One, they put their head in the sand and say to themselves that they’ll deal with it later. Or, they self talk themselves into believing that nothing can be done. Or, they take personal agency and move to change. And, this is what young fourteen year old Sandy did. She learned about nutrition and portion control. She started regular exercise – and the weight started to shed. It’s now ten years later. Sandy is a beautiful twenty four year old woman in great shape. She’s not bulimic or anorexic. Sandy took agency over her lot in life to make her world a better place. This is greatness.
  • Bill Clinton and Barak Obama both grew up without their biological fathers. Bill Clinton lost his father to a car accident three months prior to his birth. To make matters more difficult, his mother, Virginia Dell Cassidy apparently studied nursing and left little Bill with his grandparents until he was four. She remarried Bills’ stepfather, who apparently drank and had a history of abuse. William Jefferson Clinton’s greatness is owed, in part, to his determination to live a better life. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham and father, Barack Obama Sr. separated when he was an infant, with his dad eventually moving back to his native Kenya when Barack was just four years old. There is much more to say about Obama and Clinton, but their wish to take personal agency to make good and stable lives out early loss defines greatness to me (and that is prior to anything they may have done on the national stage).

Examples of greatness are endless; each being defined by the challenges we each face. The key is this:

We are judged not by what happens to us, but rather on what we do with what we are given.

That is the measure of our greatness.

It may be a supremely private life, like Sean, Sandy or Jacqueline. Or it may be public like those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. What these souls have in common is what makes humans special.

Take agency, and change the course of history.

Define Your Greatness & Change the World:

Source: istock

Powerful interests want to keep us little children that idealize others. It keeps tabloids in business, it sustains the entertainment and sports industries, it fuels some religious institutions and it even keeps a number of therapists with committed patients.

I call for a shift in consciousness. Don’t give up on your religion, or your sports hero, or your favorite actor. Just, see all these figures as people, living life just like you. Your challenges don’t separate you from everyone. They are found everywhere.

Realize that your life really counts. And, when become an agent for the better, you actually change the world.

Now, that is greatness.


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