On Greatness, Part One

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

-an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

I have to start somewhere. So I’m starting here.

For several months now, I’ve been pondering upon the idea of greatness. Maybe less about how the world defines it, and more so about how I do. And how, somehow, I yearn for it, though I have little clue what having it really means.

I’m afraid writing about it, ashamed to put forth impressions I have about greatness that feel so far from being fully formed, organized, or clear.

But I just know that I needed to try. So let this be my first and final disclaimer. I’m letting this blank page be the space to work out how this all really matters.


My wife’s favorite poem, or at least the one she knows, mostly by heart, is the one I quote above. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” has become the closest thing to an anthem we’ve taken on, a mantra if you will. Sure there is plenty of scripture that we refer to, on our best and certainly our worst days. But “Wild Geese” is the one she can recite line by line, as she slowly lulls herself to sleep.

While I have my suspicions as to why it’s so meaningful to her, I am only sure of why it matters deeply for me. There are few lines that cut to the core of me like the ones I list above.

And out of those, none more than the first: “You do not have to be good”

I do not believe Mary Oliver is giving us license to be bad. Nor do I think she encourages that we indulge our every pleasure either.

But I think she only means to help us embrace our limitations, our fallibility, our fallenness. And that to know it, and name it, is perfectly ok.

Or at least, this is what I imagine Ms. Oliver telling me, over a cup of tea.

I’ve long prided myself in being my own worst critic. And I’ve also always made it a point to be my first. This is the dark underbelly of my quest toward goodness. On the surface, it may appear to be the most commendable of things – the pursuit of being purely, and simply, good.

But what I’m beginning to uncover now is what lies just beneath. I find my soul too eager to pounce upon any moment that gives itself an excuse to self-flagellate, criticize, and curse. It is always ready, always looking for the cracks through which it can seep, and spread.

The need to be good has consumed me for too long. It has misplaced my identity with another version of itself, steeped in meritocracy – in the idea that my goodness can actually be earned and achieved. I try, then fail, and try again. This is the endless, internal cycle. The path to goodness that leads to nowhere but here and now – in the present place wherein I must face my own, glaring imperfection.

In my finite mind there’s a common sense hierarchy most people tend to follow. We aspire to go from good to great. No one desires to go the other way around. And for people like me, no one desires to merely be good.

“Good” doesn’t feel like it’s enough when there’s still “great” to be had, to become.

But in the last several months, I’ve started to wonder if “great” was really worth pursuing altogether. Perhaps there is something else to gain by actually giving up our greatness, or at least the conventional ideas we’ve come to associate with it. Maybe the power, fame, and respect; the achievement, the glory, or whatever the “standard” is. What if we gave up on gaining all of those things?

What if we were ok with just, “good”? And what if we challenged even that notion? What if we gave up “goodness” too?  What I mean to ask is, what if we simply, stopped striving?

What becomes of us then – of me – when I start fighting the urge to become better, and just embrace all that I am, right now…