“What Is Greatness?”
I am fascinated with greatness.
I would argue that nearly everyone is fascinated with greatness, actually. We all admire individual achievements, be they moments of great love or sacrifice, the genius of invention, or a tremendous work of art. In the context of sports I think this is particularly true. From a young age, our children emulate the best athletes and play out human’s greatest athletic achievements in their backyard. A generation of kids grew up trying to soar through the air like Michael Jordan, wishing they could recreate his pure shot or majestic dunks. A boy or girl today might envision themselves dancing across a crowded grass field, a soccer ball clinging to their feet as they imitate the fluid movement of Lionel Messi, a magician in shin guards. Adults do this too, though they might hesitate to be as obvious as a child at play. What golfer a decade ago could approach a 25 foot putt without thinking of Tiger Woods pumping his fist as he commanded yet another incredible shot into the hole? Alas, some greatness is fleeting.
We all seem to sense greatness when in the presence of someone to has reached out and touched it. So how do we define it? How can we even begin to achieve it in our own lives?
One of my favorite past times is to read about great minds and achievements, to try to learn what makes them great. I’m partial to reading on athletes and coaches in this regard, though the story of any great man or woman will keep me reading into the late hours of the night. Initially, I found myself drawn to biographies of the classic sports figures — those that need just one name like Lombardi, Wooden, or DiMaggio. As I grew older, I found myself intrigued by musicians like Sinatra or the Beatles, business minds like John Maxwell, Jack Welch or Walt Disney. In their midst I did my best to manage some religious reading as well, reading the occasional biography of a saint or perusing the writings of the Pope.
Then one day after considering scriptures it hit me. I had been looking at greatness from the wrong angle. Not completely wrong, I suppose. All the names above are certainly examples of greatness in their own fields. Yet if I was truly interested in learning about enduring greatness, about how I could begin to achieve greatness myself, I was starting in the wrong place.
I needed to start with God.
This is where I do the obvious commentary about how all these things are gifts from God, that we have nothing without him, etc. etc. That’s true, of course, but it’s not my point here. You see, I believe that each of the examples of greatness above have something important in common. It’s just not what I would have thought, perhaps not what most of us would think. When we think about greatness, we think about personality traits, special talents or circumstances, often times a certain drive to succeed in a given field. Yet we’re often missing something about the way these things are applied in the lives of those who become great. That is what I eventually learned from the saints.
I took this to prayer recently as I considered my roles as a husband and father, my leadership role in youth sports. I came up with the following as my definition of greatness:
Greatness is achieved when one uses the particular talents, passions and wisdom granted to him by God and joins those perfectly with the proper discernment and application of God’s will in his life.
Think about that for a moment. We simply cannot do better than that in our life; taking the gifts God has given us and using them for the purpose he created us for. A thing cannot achieve more then to do well that which its creator desired it to do.
We all have special talents, things that we can do perhaps better than anyone we know. We recognize that we also have a passion for certain things, be it raising our family or playing music. In addition, we gain wisdom through our lives that allows us to display experience, knowledge and good judgement in our actions. Lining up those three things can yield impressive results: a person who does his work well, enjoys doing it, and uses knowledge and experience to his advantage. It still doesn’t get to what we’d identify as greatness.
What’s missing? Let’s return to an example from sports. Michael Jordan is often called the greatest basketball player ever. He checks off the boxes of greatness: clear talent, unrivaled passion, the wisdom to beat players of any size or strength. Yet for two years in the middle of his basketball career, Michael Jordan paused to play baseball. He was not great at baseball. Those other traits were still there. You can see his natural athleticism in old minor league highlights. He was said to show his iconic passion and drive to succeed. He even demonstrated the ability to apply what he learned through experience. He may have gotten pretty good had he stuck with it, but he was not going to become great. When he returned to basketball, his greatness was quickly apparent once again. So what gives?
On a superficial level, this example demonstrates what happens when a person with the characteristics to be great lacks the second part of this definition: to join those perfectly with the proper discernment and application of God’s will in his life. I don’t claim to be the judge of God’s will but I think we can safely suggest that at least in terms of career choice, Jordan was meant to play basketball. He may have done just fine for himself in business or as the lead guitar in a band, but would he have been truly great in those areas? As another example, does anyone think the Beatles would have been similarly transcendent had they spent years trying to be basketball players? People who achieve greatness in any discipline do so because find what they were created to do.
The saints help make this point. These great men and women are saints precisely because they exemplify what it means to serve God and His Will. They all had special talents, passions and wisdom. By putting those to use for the glory of God, they transcended their life on this earth and have returned to their Creator in heaven. One saint in particular strikes me as a great example here. Saint Augustine was considered brilliant by plenty of people while he lived a life of sin, openly opposing Christians. In fact, Augustine was on the path to quite a bit of success in his fourth century world. Yet he is considered one of our greatest saints because he returned to the Divine Truth and sought out God’s will for His life. When he sought to use his considerable talents to do what God was calling him to do, he became not only a talented orator, but one of the greatest speakers and writers the world has ever seen. In finding what he was truly meant to do — how he was truly meant to apply his gifts — he was able to impact the lives of countless people through the centuries. Augustine might have written critically acclaimed books had he continued down his original path, but I doubt they would be sitting on my bookshelf or many others nearly 1700 years later.
The problem is that many people never truly realize the potential of the gifts they have been granted because they never attempt to join them to the holy will of God. Many are stuck in the same trap that held Augustine, content to achieve worldly acclaim and live a “good” life. In his tremendously popular book Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote that “good is the enemy of great.” This is a fantastic insight. If we want to be truly great, we must avoid simply settling for what the world considers good enough. I would add that we must reach beyond our earthly desires or what the world considers success to find that God has an even greater plan for us. Collins is a business thinker, not a theologian, so he does not consider how the saints apply here. We would do well to consider just that. Saints have in-common a radical desire to live out God’s will in their lives, to use the gifts he gave them to glorify Him and bring about His will in the world. They don’t always understand what His will is for them, often it takes years of prayer to discern. The result is that they achieve greatness that separates them on earth and endures here long after they are taken into heaven.
To be clear, living out God’s will isn’t always easy. Like the great athlete, it takes sacrifice and hard work. It may take us from a job we enjoy or a way of life that is comfortable. Blessed Mother Theresa could have lived a much more comfortable life had she taken another path. A young Karol Wojtyla never had ambitions to become Pope, yet in serving God’s will he had a tremendous impact on world history and is responsible for millions of souls who know God as a result of his work. For years after his death he was even called Pope John Paul the Great. Now we call him a saint.
While the examples I use here are famous, greatness is not beyond our own reach. I believe that it is precisely that so few people actually put these things together that makes those people stick out to the rest of us. The truth is that greatness comes from everywhere. We can’t all “Be Like Mike,” but then I’m guessing there are other things we do better than he does. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is considered a great saint because of the many little things she did with great joy and love for God. Things we can imitate on a daily basis. For most of us it’s simply a matter of turning to prayer to determine what our true gifts and passions are, then discerning how we use those to do God’s will. This isn’t easy and it doesn’t usually happen overnight, but it’s entirely doable. In fact, it’s what God is calling us to do each and every day. An ordinary teacher, nurse, lawyer or salesperson needs only to find the path that God desires for him in this field in order to do extraordinary things.
I’m fascinated by greatness because I long to be great. I pray that you do too that you may seek to realize that greatness through the will of God for your own life. We have the awesome opportunity through sports to see the components of greatness manifested in unique and powerful ways from children to adults. Through the gift of technology we don’t have to go far to find incredible feats of mind, body and soul. Sometimes it seems unattainable, but Christ reminds us that we are all meant to attain it. He died for us because He knew this to be true. We too are made for greatness, we simply need to turn to God to discern how we get there.