Do We Have an "Obligation to Greatness"?

Everyone has the capacity for heroism. But only when we're ready.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Photo by Vic at HangInThereDotCom
Source: Photo by Vic at HangInThereDotCom

Recently on the sports program, Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser discussed Tiger Woods’ disastrous score on one hole in the final round of the 2020 Masters golf tournament. Kornheiser didn’t talk at all about Tiger’s shotmaking gaffes. Instead, he focused on what Tiger did after carding his disastrous score.

Tiger birdied five of the next six holes, a feat that Kornheiser called, “the obligation to greatness”.

I was struck by this phrase and immediately Googled it to see its origins and usage. To my surprise, “the obligation to greatness” appears most often in a religious context, referring to our call to transcend our earthly ambitions. From this perspective, the obligation to greatness is God’s wish for us to become our best selves.

My feelings about this "obligation to greatness” are a mix of heady inspiration and cautionary dread.

The inspiration is the more obvious emotion. All my work on heroism this past decade has focused on helping and encouraging people to reach their fullest, most heroic potential. Despite life’s challenges, and maybe even because of them, we can all be heroes.

We can be resilient. We can overcome our struggles, and our suffering, to offer hope to others, help others, and thus make a positive difference in the world.

The caution I feel about “the obligation to greatness” is that it may feel like a burden to those who are not yet ready to heed the call. For many of us right now, life is one slap in the face after another. There are economic challenges. There are the hurts of broken relationships. There are health challenges.

Achieving “greatness” may be the last thing on our minds. Just getting through the day seems like a challenge enough.

Where does that leave us? Wrapping our minds around “the obligation to greatness” may require a creative tension. We can trust that the obligation is there, but only when we are ready to fulfill it. Not before.

During our struggles, we can trust, even to a slight degree, that something bigger and better is waiting for us. Trusting the process is very hard when there are bills to pay, hurts to mend, and tears to shed. This is why so many good mentors encourage us to hold on.

Today, I am telling you: Hold on. I am here for you. I am telling you that even by holding onto life by a thread, you are fulfilling your obligation to greatness, whether you are aware of it or not.