When I was in junior high, I remember sitting with my friend Angie on her front porch steps.
The deep green grass danced between shade and light. Sunlight flitted through whispering leaves ruffled by a soft breeze, and possibility stretched across the expansive blue sky.
“I think I am going to do something great in my life — something important,” I recall saying.
At various junctures in my life, I have reflected on what that greatness might be, and whether or not I was achieving it and who would decide.
Most of the time, I have concluded that I was not doing great things. Instead, I have done human things — like make poor decisions, fall victim to my rationalizations, run from seeming chaos in search of the right place and situation that would act as my chrysalis.
In my best moments, I have not considered greatness at all. I did not think about my legacy, or who I would please with my process or product.
In my best moments, I focused only on the task at hand. I made a plan and worked through it until attainment.
I learned what I needed to know, I worked diligently on the tasks, made certain sacrifices to get the job done, and when I accomplished the goal, I was pleased with the outcome, and most of the time, so were others — if not right away, then eventually.
In some ways, I feel like J. Alfred Prufrock, a bit obtuse, and sometimes the fool — a product of my own shortcomings.
In an article published in The Patterson Journal of International Affairs, David Jankowski wrote about the allure of greatness in the framework of drug enhancement through sports.
He talked about the American Dream, and how high-performing athletes seem to embody that dream.
“Athletes struggle through barriers and despite all odds rise to levels that inspire. At times we are compelled to tears as we vicariously watch their trials, their tribulations, and their triumphs. Athletes remind us that life is not about the falls but the rise. They are a glimpse at what we all have the potential to be, champions in all aspects of life,” Jankowski wrote.
Jankowksi delves into the idea that people cheat to achieve greatness.
“If 77% of the athletes finishing in the top ten of the tour are drug cheats, what is the probability that the other 23% are clean?” Jankowski asks.
To win and to achieve greatness, Janowski argues, that most of the 23% also cheat.
If true, then those who work as hard to perform competitively with the best of the best have little chance of achieving the same level of greatness without using similar drug enhancements.
Those athletes become second best. Solid performers, but lacking in the wow-factor, and therefore, mediocre in the whole scheme of things.
I think there is some truth that there are many people who succumb to the allure of greatness.
Some want to win or be the best so badly, they willingly compromise their integrity, and hope they do not get caught.
Others sacrifice all of their time for greatness. These people tend to be the ones depicted in Hallmark movies — the ones who eventually learn that family is more important than that six-figure job.
Still others achieve greatness by coming up from “nothing.” Watch ESPN’s 30 for 30, and you will discover numerous athletes rising from the ashes of shattered hopes, grasping an unbelievable win.
While these kinds of stories embody what many Americans consider great, and inspire a lot of people to strive for greatness too, I can’t help but see this pursuit of greatness as a savory delight tucked in a snare.
Most of the moments of greatness are just moments. They are the cherry on top of a mountain of hard work and tenacity. We tend to measure the value of the work by the success of the outcome. Second place is not first place, regardless of how many teams you beat to get to the final round.
Me at 13 thought of greatness as being the best at something. I thought that I would need to achieve something that made the whole world stop and look. I thought I would need to create something that would live long past my lifespan.
Now, I am not so sure that greatness as we portray it in sports and in other arenas is what I want, because this version of greatness comes with the expectation that we sustain our peak achievement or repeat it.
When we fail to repeat it, or cannot sustain it, we are washed up, or one hit wonders — we’ve seen the greatness of our lives flicker and fade.
So greatness seems a tease, luring us to this moment and then trapping us in that moment — forever defining us for what we were once able to achieve.
We are measured by the moments of our greatness, and forgotten when someone else surpasses that greatness.
Is greatness the unsung hero — the one who does his job, day in and day out with little to no thanks? Or is it the person who stands his or her ground and makes a difference, if only for a few people that then carry that moment with them for the rest of their lives, allowing it to shape their great moments?
As a teacher and a parent, I think I may be looking for the greatness in my personal role and profession and buying into the notion that we often teach our children things they may never realize came from us, or may only realize long after we have gone.
That kind of greatness stretches out across the horizon, and it is passed on from one person to another in quiet ways.
While I may never receive an award for it, it is the kind of greatness that never fades. I have been given it from my ancestors, teachers and mentors, and I pass it on to the people I meet in my lifetime.
It is the only greatness that keeps me striving to be even better than I was yesterday, and I know that while it is quiet and often unnoticed, it is the only greatness that will sustain me and the people that follow in my footsteps, even as I falter with age and my footprints fade.