Greatness is a part of who we are and who we always have been. It was forged in the fires of revolution as a statement of who we are and as an example of what we aspire to be. It isn’t just given and it isn’t just assumed. It is demonstrated and held up as an example for others to follow.
So what is greatness? One definition says that greatness “is the quality of being great, distinguished or eminent” and I think that has been applicable to us and can still be found in us today. Think of the founders of this country, each one flawed, each possessive of different attributes of character, personal morals, intellectual talents and individual gifts, yet in their coming together as one, in the combining of the sum talents each one possessed, they laid the foundation of our country and achieved a greatness that we still look back on with awe and which we still search for to inspire us today.
Greatness and the ability to achieve greatness is something deeply encoded into our DNA and our desire to be something better than who we are and what we are is a powerful motivation that truly manifests itself in times of great crisis as well as moments of lesser import.
Greatness existed in the collective will of the men and women who went to war in the 1940’s to make our world safe against maniacal tyrants who sought greatness at the expense of everyone else and whose sole way of achieving it rested on their abilities to subvert the will of everyone around them to their way of thinking. The soldiers that stormed the beaches at Normandy and those who raised the flag at Iwo Jima achieved greatness at a tremendous cost but in doing so, they collectively elevated all of us in the eyes of the world. Those whom they opposed on the other hand did not achieve greatness but instead attained notoriety and there is a big difference between the two. It should be the desire of any individual or nation to aspire to the mark of greatness rather than to sink into the abyss of notoriety.
We have seen greatness and the capacity for it to elevate us and enlighten us as a civilization. We saw our nation attain it in the 1960’s when our collective willpower, intellect and desire for national achievement put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, yet even in that moment we became truly aware of ourselves as a world of people balanced on a fragile planet in the middle of a very lonely universe. Perspective can be a humbling experience and even in one of our greatest moments of personal triumph, we realized that our true goal of greatness must eventually be reached as a society of the world and not just one small part of it.
We talk about becoming great again, yet we overlook the seeds of greatness that were planted over 200 years ago and we fail to nurture that garden the way our founders envisioned it. Greatness was already there but like a garden, it must continuously be maintained and it must evolve and grow within us. It must become part of our nature and lived every day, not just in a ten second soundbite. We must never allow ourselves to be misled about what constitutes greatness.
Greatness isn’t about power. It isn’t about wealth and it isn’t about forcing our will upon others. Greatness is instead ascribed to those who don’t seek to earn it, but who instead demonstrate it in all that they do, in the examples they set for others and in countless, random acts of kindness and investment in others.
It isn’t a mantle that should ever be worn comfortably but one that should be worn with humbleness, with respect and with the knowledge that the greatness achieved by others in no way diminishes the greatness of ourselves. What defines it has not changed but in many ways, how we define it has altered considerably. We have lost sight of the true meaning of it while we run off chasing a mirage that represents what we think it is.
Greatness can be obtained just as effectively and with just as much impact in a single act of kindness, unseen and unknown, as it can be obtained in one great act played on a world stage for all to see. You cannot buy it, you cannot sell it and you certainly cannot market it but you can waste it away in both individual and collective acts of self-interest engineered for personal gain.
It isn’t something you can find on the supermarket shelf, yet it can be found in the supermarket by random acts of kindness that happen there each day…the person who gives their spare change to help another who comes up short…the strong child who reaches up and helps an older person put that heavy item in their cart…or the person who gives a stranger that coupon for something that they themselves don’t need but which they recognize is needed by someone else.
It can be found in the streets by churches serving food to a homeless person or in our kids building a wheelchair ramp for someone who cannot get in or out of their own home. Greatness can be found in every small town and every place across America. These little things make us great in many ways.
Certainly we as a nation are angry at many things and a lot of us want to see things change for the better but we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled for one moment into thinking that we can achieve positive greatness through the use of negative acts.
We cannot be a nation others aspire to emulate if we are bullying others to agree with our position, rather than convincing them of its merits. We cannot be the arsenal of democracy if we are belittling those that think differently than we do, rather than seeking common ground to build upon. We cannot be seen as a leader if we are engaging in angry words and argument, rather than cultivating persuasive debate. Finally, we cannot be a beacon of hope and liberty to others if we don’t properly light the way by setting the right example and by doing the right thing.
To paraphrase a past president, there is nothing wrong with our country that cannot be overcome by all that is right with our country. We’ve just lost sight of what is right and what is just about our nation by becoming more concerned with party and politics, with negative rhetoric and with theatrical showmanship. This time is a dark chapter in our history but it isn’t the final chapter and we still have the opportunity to write those words in such a way that it will be an all-time bestseller.
The last word hasn’t been written on American greatness. We still have the pen and we still have the blank pages. We just have to decide if greatness is something that can be bought and sold like soap flakes…or if greatness is still the mark of advanced citizenship, leading by example and working hard to overcome the worst that still persists in each of us. Let’s make America great again by being a great America.
Very well said, Michael. An inspiring read and a voice of reason in the midst of a political season where reason seems to be evading so many voters.
Great thought provoking piece.