On Greatness, Part Two

I’m still mulling it over. What it means to be great, that is. Or more directly, why it means so much to us, to be great.

I ended part one questioning whether all of our striving really matters. For those of us who feel this incessant need to get better, to succeed, and who have this unnatural aversion to failing, at all costs, on any circumstances, perhaps this question is most pertinent to us.

Likely, each of us who have been consumed by our own drive to improve has received some form of encouragement that sounds a lot like the phrase, “It isn’t about the destination, but the journey.” But fortunate cookie platitudes tend not to serve us well. If anything, while meant as encouragement, this sort of statement feels more like a dismissal – as if it failed to recognize the fruits of our labor.

But when examined more thoughtfully (after our internal rage settles), there’s something to glean there, should we choose to extract it.

In itself, I do not believe “striving” is wrong. I don’t believe it’s a complete waste of time. I’m not advocating that we all consider being slackers OK. I’m just trying to get to the heart of the matter – that is, why we strive so hard.

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On my way to get a cup of coffee, I overheard some basketball talk by some bystanders (I have a radar for these sorts of things) and I heard someone ask if the Lakers are out (of the playoffs). His friend responded, “No, but Kobe is.”

Somehow I had missed this piece of news on the rare occasion that I hadn’t checked ESPN before going to bed.

Kobe Bryant is out of commission for 6-9 months due to a freak Achilles rupture, which, he admits, prompted him to take his venting to Facebook and release the following statement.

Full disclosure: It’s been a LONG time since I’ve cheered for “The Mamba”, “Vino”, or whatever he chooses to call himself. I’ve spent the greater part of my hoops fandom booing him relentlessly and making my disdain for him very public. I’m not a Laker fan, and I’m an even greater Kobe “hater”. Admittedly, this is all rather irrational. I’m merely playing my part, as any fan would, by adhering to a completely subjective set of rules. There’s no actual ill-will towards the man, and in the end, his injury is a tragic end to what many have otherwise described to be a mythical season that only bolsters his legend. Kobe may have always been a “bad guy” in my book, but the game is simply less exciting when the bad guy isn’t around  to be an adversary at all. I’m sure Reggie Miller will agree. So, hoping he’s back in 6 months. The game needs him, even if I don’t. 

This whole unfortunate incident happening to Kobe triggered my thoughts on greatness again.

His contributions to the game of basketball are irreplaceable. Like him or not, he’s a perfect example of someone who has strived so hard to be great, and actually got there. His legacy is sealed, regardless of whether he comes back from this, though in his mind, this is probably the last possible scenario he would’ve dreamed up before riding off into the sunset as one of the greatest players to ever lace ’em up.

And yet, his humanness, his frailty, was on full display two nights ago, as his mythical status came crashing down so suddenly and unexpectedly. A star was humbled. He took to Facebook to vent out his frustrations about seeing all of his efforts come to an end so abruptly, seeing hard work vanquished by this injury. You could tell he was legitimately angry.

I cannot blame him for reacting the way that he did, knowing the sort of effort he had put forth just to get his team over the edge. Many will say that this was a doomed season for the Lakers anyway. And yet, he strived. Kobe always found a motivator, whether it was inching their way to the playoffs or hitting a record scoring mark, there was always something fueling the fire. So what happens when the fire gets put out?

We can make our best guess that a character like Kobe (he is very much a special character in the NBA narrative) will come back and leave the game on his terms. But we have no clue what becomes of him as he recovers. We do not know what mere mortal-ness might actually inspire of him, and of us. We who love the game, who respect his greatness, will watch his recovery intently, hoping that in his fallenness, somehow, he still inspires.

And that’s the thing. We’re all well within our right to pursue greatness. Some of us strive for it our entire lives, give our every bit of time, energy, and passion, and will ourselves to becoming better. “Better” is only a stepping stone toward something else, towards “great”, perhaps, and push and push, and for some of us, we break.

In the pit, in the darkest moment, it is easy to believe that all the effort appears to have been wiped away. When the chase ends, the immediate feeling might be despair. That we failed.

And yet, should we find a moment of lucidity, a time when all the rage clears and we have our own thoughts again, perhaps we’ll find something worth holding onto after all. Something actually worth celebrating.

I don’t enjoy a story merely by how it ends. I enjoy it by how it’s told. In our lives, I’ll find a life of meaning based on how it’s lived, and not how it ends. There’s something to be had with the journey itself, and it has little to do with where we were headed.

I hope Kobe sees this. Perhaps in his quiet moments, he’ll see how far he had already gone.

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…

Love > Great

 

I suppose it didn’t hurt to try.

I took the GRE this past weekend, and much like the results to all my previous practice tests, this one fared no differently.

By no means was it terrible, it just wouldn’t do me much good either.

And so, I find myself back at the same crossroads from where I had began – that is, asking what, then, will my next step will be.

While the question I pose to myself finds no answer, I have found something more than a mere silver living.

There were numerous occasions throughout this entire preparation for this test that felt rather hopeless, as if I were simply cramming in too much information in too short a time. (And as my test results would show, I may have in fact pulled out all the stops far too late.) I’d spend hour after hour re-working problems that look so familiar and yet I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It was, discouraging, to say the least.

But every time I’d come to my wife complaining about all the little mistakes I made, she’d tell me, without fail, that she loved me. And that was all. Maybe a kiss on the cheek, if she were awake enough to do so.

Initially, I found myself feeling slightly peeved, as if she were refusing to indulge my complaints, or dismissing them outright as though they were unimportant (which in fact, may be true). And still, I’m not sure what sort of response it was that I wanted, exactly, and even now I’m not entirely sure I know what I need, now that it’s all said and done.

And yet, perhaps, the “I love you” she offers is more than enough. Perhaps there’s something much more profound about that response that I’m only beginning to realize now.

I didn’t need to take this test. Well, I do, should I want to get into school. But I didn’t need to apply for school. I didn’t need to try shaking up my life again, as though it were not shaken enough, for the better.

Marriage, in itself, is the milestone of my life thus far – the purest, biggest blessing I can think of. And it is the one gift I keep that always returns itself ten, twenty-fold (To even put a number to it, does it a disservice).

Her “I love you”, in this particular context, is serving a different of purpose. That’s part of the profundity of it, of how many meanings it could give, captured in three words, said over and over again.

Here, in my life right now, in these moments of frustration, of discouragement – it means this:

It means it doesn’t matter that I am not great.

It has no bearing on being loved, and that’s the gift. The freedom to be far less than perfect, let alone good, because of love. Because it is the cosmic safety net to all of life’s disappointments. It catches us when we need it, even when we forget that it’s there.

For this, for her words to me, every night when I crawl into bed, fighting off feelings of defeat – now more than ever, I am finding my permission to fail.

On Goodness, Part 3

“Everyone one of us must be the very best, of ourselves.” – Caroline Casey

In my young life, I’ve  so far discovered this one, nagging truth about myself – I desire to be great.

I had not wanted to admit this before. To have done so would have conceded that my life’s posture was one centered around myself. And that would have been absolutely, unacceptable.

Still is. However, I’m a little older now, and thankfully, more honest. This honesty compels me to say that, greatness, is in fact, a deep desire of mine, whether I like it or not. It fuels my drive to succeed, even while doing the most mundane of tasks and responsibilities, in the hopes that a better foundation of skills and experience for myself is at least readied, for the future.

This, great, big future…

To console myself, I take heart knowing that my pursuits, grand as they are, don’t involve being rich, owning a lot of property, or attaining every material desire I wish.

For me, I have generally defined achieving “greatness” as having made a tangible and substantial positive difference in this world, and thus, making it better.

Other things come with this idea of greatness, of course. Realistically, to have left your mark on the world so as to have made it a “better place” by all accounts would subsequently lead to being lauded with praise, or at least an invitation to speak at a TED conference. Think about it, how many people actually dislike Mother Teresa or the current Dalai Lama (I can think of a few exceptions – the nun who got no credit for nursing all the patients “Mommy T” didn’t get to, and the government that’d much rather Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th D.L., to just kept quiet) Generally speaking though, it’s hard not to like people who want peace or to end suffering. And the folks willing to take on suffering themselves for the sake of peace are absolute heroes in our history books (some of them, anyway).

Anyway, I digress. It isn’t just about making change in the world, but deep down, it’s also partly about being recognized by many as the change-maker.

Human beings are simply too needy. We want to be affirmed, even for the most selfless things we manage to accomplish. As much as we may want the mark we leave as simply seeing history changed for the better, I’d be willing to bet we still want our kudos for being the very agent of change.

I don’t mean to make light of this, or to peg us all guilty, the whole idealist lot of us, for still wanting credit for tireless, selfless work.

But in my practice of honesty, I’ve realized how, we all genuinely, just want to matter, and be remembered. Whether we believe we’re playing some part in some large, divine story, or just making simple, every day choices to be a better person than who we were the day before, when we’ve said and done all there is to say and we finally expire (and hence, say and do no more) don’t we just want to be known as having been good, at something? Not everyone aspires to be great, but even just good. An expert at his craft. A breadwinner of her family. A faithful partner and lover.

Don’t we all want our tombstones to read something good about what we had left behind? To have it engraved in stone that we actually left a legacy worth leaving?

I’ve digressed even further.

Now I’m thinking about death, and all I really wanted to write about was how I was living. Ends to the same spectrum, I guess.

I have to bring this back to how this rant began in the first place….

I listened to Caroline Casey talk about, well, herself, really – for 20 minutes, and I wish that she took up the rest of my lunch hour.

(if interested, see http://www.ted.com/talks/caroline_casey_looking_past_limits.html)

She talks about being legally blind, lying about it most her life, realizing she couldn’t keep on pretending she wasn’t blind, and decided to ride an elephant across India in response. Said elephant then nudges her with his trunk to live a humanitarian life and do work sensitive to elephants and serving people with disabilities. And her life, elephants’ lives, and the world, has been profoundly different since.

(I’ve embellished the story a bit, but a part of me thinks if Ms. Casey ever reads this, she wouldn’t mind a bit)

At the end of her remarkable story, she says the quote above and I repeat here so there’s no need to scroll up:

“Everyone one of us must be the very best, of ourselves.”

So here’s what I really wanted to say..

A few weeks back I rambled on about wanting to be good. In fact, I wrote about it again soon afterward because I had more to say about why being good matters. And now I write about wanting to be great. And feeling a tad bit bad about it. Bad, because the aspiration just keeps getting bigger and and bigger, and seemingly further and further away, from myself.

And that’s the thing – to want to be absolutely great, at least in the way that I had framed it for myself – has become less about achieving my own personal potential to its fullest, and more about taking on what the world has deemed a “great life” lived, and doing that instead.

I’d much rather follow a blueprint to living a great and meaningful life as it had been so determined, rather than working steadfastly on creating my own. In my wild desire to carve out a unique story in a world filled with billions of wonderful ones, I’ve gotten stuck just wanting to etch a pattern that’s already been done. And I do this, because in my mind, it is what works, and it is great. And I want to be great, so…

….I will do, what works?

If I stay on this course, I’m afraid I’ve gone the path of no longer getting the point.

And the point being this – that greatness itself, was never, nor should ever, be the end. If anything, it is a means, because our individual greatness, our unique abilities to thrive and excel and do amazing things, ought to lead to something even bigger, better, and beyond what we see.

Others may look at our lives, and recognize the “greatness” in what we do, or in who we are, or in what we stand for, but that in itself, is not for us to strive towards solely, at least not in my book.

I say this, knowing full well, that it is in fact, largely what I strive for, and so the clenched fist of conviction is beating upon my heart with a great sense of desperation – lest I quickly forget all that I am saying.

Perhaps the lesson is so hard for me because frankly, it’s hard enough consider what I have to offer, as is, as being great.

I’ve long convinced myself to believe that greatness is a destination, rather than understanding it to be something internal – an innate and unique set of gifts and talents that need only to be realized and harnessed properly.

The most important thing I’ve gleaned from this slight shift in thinking is that the greatness, already exists. It might feel buried at times, but it’s there. It simply isn’t realized, or perhaps, understood, even by me. The makings of me at this very moment have yet to feel all that awesome, but somehow, and sooner than later, I’m going to have to start believing that what is inside, is what is good. And maybe in fact, great. Just not the kind of great I’ve learned to value.

Otherwise, this whole pursuit will remain but a chasing after what has already been done. And who wants to be remembered for that?