Before you read this article, I want us to play a quick game. Take a moment and think of five people, living or deceased, that you think exemplify greatness. Think about it for a minute or two and then write them down before you keep reading.
Who is on your list? Maybe there is someone on your list with incredible musical talent, like Elton John or Bing Crosby. Did you include Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, or someone else with several Oscars? Or maybe there is a championship athlete, like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky. How about someone really creative, like Walt Disney, or a mastermind like Ken Jennings that has won lots of money on game shows?
People like this were among the first people to come to mind when I was asked this question. But then I realized that there’s a problem with this list. My singing voice isn’t much better than a car horn’s. I can barely skate without falling down, much less hold a hockey stick. I’m decent at trivia, but I would never beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. Is greatness only about being the best at something? If so, does that mean I can’t be great?
Then I thought a little more about who could be on this list. What about people who changed the world? Alexander the Great? His name even says he’s great…he did kill a lot of people, though. Thomas Edison? Maybe we’re getting warmer…I do use light bulbs pretty often. But who really made other people’s lives better? What about Nelson Mandela? Or Gandhi? Now I think we’re on to something.
Maybe the greatest people positively impact the lives of others. One person that I think very clearly belongs on this list is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A couple of weeks before he was assassinated, he spoke at a church in Atlanta. This is what he had to say about greatness:
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics…to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; February 4, 1968
As an admitted grammar snob and a researcher of thermodynamics, this quote resonated with me quite strongly. I really like this definition because it puts no restriction on one’s profession, age, education, specific talents, or other factors that are associated with the earlier iterations of our list. In particular, we often measure someone’s greatness by his or her profession. After introducing myself to someone, usually the first question they ask is “What do you do?” I’ve begun to wonder if this is a bad question for beginning conversations. It can often lead to rapid judgment of a person’s worth based on the perceived value of their occupation or other external factors.
This is a slightly off-topic, but I find it very disrespectful when people demean the occupations of others. As an engineer, my work seems to generally be considered important to most people, maybe because it sounds cool, or because we use lots of fancy machines, or because it requires a college degree. However, I need the custodians in my building to keep the lab clean so that I can safely perform my experiments each day. I need the restaurant chefs to make a good lunch for me so that I can be alert and healthy while I work. I need the construction workers to fill potholes and keep the roads safe so that I commute to and from work each day. Aside from the small handful of unethical “professions” that actively exploit or hurt people (e.g. drug dealers, slave traders, etc.), just about every job is important and valuable to society. It is time that we stop judging greatness by who has the most prestigious or lucrative job, but instead by who performs their job with the most love.
Someone else who thought anyone could be great, and who performed his job with a tremendous amount of love, was Jesus. And though he was greater and more powerful than any of us, he repeatedly equated greatness – and his own mission – with service:
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.” (Mark 10:43)
“Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.” (Luke 22:26)
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)
I think it is easy to initially be taken aback by Jesus’ radical approach to greatness and the value he places on service. This is almost exactly the opposite of how we tend to view greatness in modern society, and uses very different criteria compared to my initial list of greats. Matthew Kelly, who wrote the reflection I was reading when I first saw Dr. King’s quote a couple of months ago, expressed it this way: “The world says that greatness is reserved for a few. God says everybody can be great. The world says that if you’re great, everyone will serve you. God says if you are great, you will serve everybody else.” This isn’t to say that being an exemplary athlete or musician is a bad thing – after all, we are called to share our talents with others – but we shouldn’t limit our own potential for greatness based on feeling inferior or otherwise comparing ourselves to others.
Finally, I want to mention that although being a servant often sounds unexciting or otherwise has a negative connotation in our society, our call to service is not some sort of punishment or divinely-inspired guilt trip. Serving others can be extremely fulfilling and rewarding. By sharing the love of God with other people, service leads us to happiness and helps us discover our mission in life. Service helps us turn our good intentions into something concrete and directly beneficial to our spiritual brothers and sisters in our churches, our communities, and around the world. So let us go forth, and in the words of St. John, “Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)