Holistic Living - Awake Arise Aspire
by Anita Vasudeva
Understanding and aspiring for greatness is no longer the domain of the genius or sage. Greatness is within your grasp and mine
In a world where ‘great’ is an adjective as easily applied to a meal or a movie or a man, the concept of greatness changes shape and substance from speaker to listener, from writer to reader. The attribute of greatness once conferred upon emperors and spiritual messiahs is now found everywhere – in boardrooms, on the playing field, the sports arena, the celluloid screen, the classroom – and some of us will say ‘why not’?
Innate to our human nature, we persist in our quest to discover something larger, something bigger than us, greater than our world, dare one say, something divine. As children, we are urged by the world, by society, by our community, by our parents, to aspire to greatness, to recognize it, to reward it. Within ourselves the words to describe greatness elude us. It seems intangible. Yet we always recognize it when the essence of it faces us, even while our perception of greatness changes with our years and our circumstances.
And throughout our lives, from time to time, in the course of our work, in the throes of our relationships and in the surge towards the spiritual, there are questions we all ask ourselves, in some form or the other:
• What is greatness?
• Isn’t greatness inherent in everyone?
• Does greatness have to be famous or visible to exist? and softly,
• Can I be great?
What is greatness?
The definition is largely fluid and depends on so many variables – historical and cultural perspectives, social biases, religious beliefs, political and economic aspirations. And yet it makes sense and may be wise perhaps to start with dictionary meanings, all of which include a measure of the essence of greatness and therefore cannot be ignored.
Noun1. Greatness – the property possessed by something or someone of outstanding importance or eminence.
• Unusually or comparatively large in size or dimensions
• Unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.
• Notable; remarkable; exceptionally outstanding
• Distinguished; famous
• Person who has achieved importance or distinction in a field
Primarily the core of greatness seems to involve a state that is far beyond normal parameters of good, better and best. Greatness emerges by adding superlatives to aspects of what is culturally and contextually accepted as good, noble, successful, and excellent. Time and again it raises the bar beyond what seems possible and reveals itself as the striving of the human spirit towards the best of what the soul can sense.
What is greatness, I ask of people around me. Being good, says the grandmother who has learned to sift the basic essentials; being incredibly famous and successful, says the twenty-something executive; being an effective leader, says the 40-plus professional; being the best sportsman in the world, says the seventeen-year-old; being quiet, says a 60-year-old veteran of relationships; being kind, says the beggar boy at the traffic light (“humein pyar se roz roti khilate hain – mahan mahatma uncle hain”). They all seem so right. And yet, and yet…
Margot Asquith defined the elements of greatness rather succinctly: “The first element of greatness is fundamental humbleness (this should not be confused with servility); the second is freedom from self; the third is intrepid courage, which, taken in its widest interpretation, generally goes with truth; and the fourth – the power to love – although I have put it last, is the rarest.”
The Power to Love
The power to love accurately underscores the ability to greatness – to love above all else, a right, a good, people, a value, a nation, a cause or a goal; to love in such a way that the man and his deeds are more than good or indeed excellent. They are great.
On an online blog (http://lunaticwisdome.com/blog/2006/10/26/on-greatness), I found the following extract that opines on a difference, and I quote: “It’s a long way from mediocrity to excellence. So, common sense would seem to indicate that it’s just as long a road from excellence to greatness. But I believe that greatness is an entirely different road that bypasses both mediocrity and excellence. Greatness is no closer to excellence than it is to mediocrity. Bill Gates is excellent; Nelson Mandela is great. Bill was busy
making his first billion and putting a PC on every desk while Nelson was languishing in prison. There’s a difference.”
Certainly raises the bar in the aspiration for greatness!
I make a mental list of those the world has considered to possess greatness, or a degree of it, Christ and the Buddha and all other spiritual leaders clearly being the ultimate living greatness. Emperors and rulers like Akbar, Alfred and William, generals and statesmen, leaders and fighters, care-givers, philanthropists and philosophers, inventors and scientists, artistes and sportsmen. There is something in common they all share – a strand that shines brightly through their lives. It is a glowing thread that pulled them up and beyond their own selves and enveloped a large world around them in a vision that was clearly universal and not hemmed by the boundaries of the daily lives they led. As you explore their lives, suddenly you will find yourself caught up not in them as people, but in their visions, in the soaring of their spirit, in their actions that leapt beyond their selves, and you may come to the core of greatness:
Greatness is when the brilliance of the soul reveals itself through the man and his actions.
That’s probably where the Indian synonym for true greatness was born: Mahatma – The Great Soul. “Greatness is a spiritual condition,” as Matthew Arnold said, whether it manifests itself in boardrooms or ashrams, studios or parliaments, in homes or on the street.
From the story of the world-acknowledged mahatma – our very own Gandhiji, and others of the ilk, it isn’t surprising then to conclude that wherever greatness emerges, the ‘I’ is submerged into a larger world and all deeds and goals turn towards the greater good, the highest achievement:
• The good of mankind
• The benefit of the nation
• The success of the company
• The well-being of the community
• The triumph of expression
It also seems true that greatness works tirelessly and in the face of many odds and much pain; it crosses physical limits and overcomes impossible obstacles to achieve the greater good. It seems logical then that many commentators of life even claim that true greatness can only be born from personal pain, or even from personal tragedy, for thus is true courage forged, and through which true beliefs sustain. The work of a Mother Teresa must obviously have carried with it a fair amount of personal pain and discomfort, but the compassion of the soul overcame all odds to manifest in a tremendous greatness.
Greatness is pre-defined by struggle, extreme discipline and hardships. Check out the interviews with any of the well-known persons you associate with greatness – the Dalai Lama, Narayan Murthy, Lata Mangeshkar, your favorite sportsperson (there is a heartening long list), and their stories of great achievement will be underlined definitively by severe and intense effort, and an immense amount of challenges faced and surmounted. No, greatness never comes easy. Perhaps that’s why it is rare.
Isn’t greatness inherent in everyone?
One of the most telling definitions of great in a dictionary is the archaic one: Great with child, being in the late stages of pregnancy.
I find that this so vividly expresses the idea of the divine potential of greatness that is born with every being, in every soul. In all of the world’s spiritual traditions – from remote tribal ones to the familiar global ones – the tending of a child’s soul and person, the education of a young one’s character, assisting him or her to grow and discover the greatness intrinsic to their selves, was, and indeed still is in some parts, common practice. This is done through rituals and scriptures and stories and a noble, courageous and compassionate upbringing. Greatness lives indeed within all of us and the elders and the wise men see that and spend their lives making their wisdom and guidance available to many, helping them realize the greatness. It is indeed the truth in us. “Great men are true men, the men in whom nature has succeeded. They are not extraordinary – they are in the true order. It is the other species of men who are not what they ought to be,” rhapsodized Henri Frederic Amiel
In the living of our lives, we are overtaken by sensory desires, by the call of the daily drama, by the quick gratification, by the short-term achievement. We are conditioned by the transactional visions of our peers and our society and while there is much to be said for the courage required to achieve success and balance within our regular lives, the golden potential of greatness often gets buried steadily under layers of ‘just living’ and the process of providing for ourselves and our families. So, when one of us steps up and soars beyond, we are awed by the greatness, and then indeed, it is treated as rare.
Martin Luther King Jr. said “…your new definition of greatness. (It) means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
His was a response to the gospel, where Jesus explains the concept of greatness to his followers:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9: 30 - 37
Does greatness have to be famous or visible to exist?
From Jesus’ words and similar thoughts echoed in various ways by prophets and sages down the ages, we do accept that “each of us is great insofar as we perceive and act on the infinite possibilities which lie undiscovered and unrecognized about us,” as James Harvey Robinson put it. Yes, each of us is familiar with the famous greats – the Mahatmas, the Bonaparte, the Helen Keller, the Shakespeare, the Lance Armstrong. But equally, each of us has also met in our lives people whose greatness lives quietly, not demanding attention, discovered by only those who receive the beneficence of it, and sometimes not even by them. It is a greatness which lives wisely amongst family, friends, colleagues and community, providing guidance, love, compassion and courage, making amazing differences in people’s lives and to the world.
We have met this greatness in a friend who has cared lovingly for ailing parents all her life; in a relative who has quietly been provider and mentor to a family while working round the clock; a colleague who has nurtured the professional and personal lives of hundreds of co-workers and led an organization through turmoil to success; in a teacher who has tirelessly transformed the lives of hundreds of children; in a stranger who has set up a school in a remote village. These are people I have met. There must be many you have met. When we find greatness we recognize it even though we may not call it by its true name.
What makes these people answer the call within, while the rest of us allow it to lie dormant? As you hear their stories, you realize some come to it naturally, driven by the intensity of a longing within, and some come to it by circumstance, while others are inspired by great teachers and leaders. Finally, they tread the difficult but obviously fulfilling path alone.
Today, in an upsurge of the collective soul, thousands across the world are beginning to consciously explore the possibility of their own greatness, an awareness of the potential of the soul. Quietly you can see a revolution sweeping across the continents as increasing numbers are turning to the scriptures, to spiritual guides, to artistic expression, to service of humanity and mankind. While the world seems to be falling apart, there is a soaring movement towards greatness – in word and in action.
In a world where politics and economics rule the headlines, spiritual leaders are invited to address business conventions and economic summits. Greatness is being uncovered in the workplace. Stephen Covey’s book, 8th Habit – From Effectiveness to Greatness, is about finding your own voice and helping others find theirs. According to Covey, “Deep within each one of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to really make a difference”, and again, “Discover your voice by coming to understand your true nature … and by developing and using with integrity the intelligence tied to each of the four parts of your nature.” Covey guides you to express your true voice by “…cultivating the highest manifestations of these human intelligences – vision, discipline, passion and conscience (chapter 5).”
Once a person discovers and expresses their own voice, the next step in achieving greatness is to inspire others to find and express their voice. “Once you’ve found your own voice, the choice to expand your influence, to increase your contribution, is the choice to inspire others to find their voice.” The 8th Habit is the answer to the soul’s yearning for greatness, the organization’s imperative for significance and superior results, and humanity’s search for its ‘voice’”.
Mentors and coaches like Dr. Covey today are providing ‘practical and inspiring’ principles and strategies to a world striving towards greatness. It’s a good guidance, but that’s what it is – guidance. The road to greatness is walked alone, and no, it’s not easy. Yes, it’s desirable.
Can I be Great? (Softly)
Yes, you can. Surely, we all can. If we can hear our inner voice and then act upon it, come what may, for “great things are done when men and mountains meet” as William Blake said. Climbing mountains is tough but if you must answer the call from the other side, then you will be prepared to face the challenge and the view from the top is often a humbling bonus. It makes for greatness.