False Greatness and its Remedy

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Most of the time I assume myself to be a person falling into the same category Churchill found himself in when dealing with people he didn’t like: “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” People rub me the wrong way, and they will continue to do so until the day I die. But at least I try to keep an eye on my own prejudices; that someone rubs me the wrong way might not be a problem with the other person, but a problem with me. Maybe a person’s loudmouthed, snap-to-judgment personality isn’t truly something to despise, rather a facet of their person-hood that deserves all the tolerance and respect as their annoying but harmless mannerisms and inability to manage a working relationship with personal hygiene. A person may be annoying, grating, and obnoxious, but that hardly makes them evil. Thus it makes it even more difficult when, in dealing with a person, that deep unease takes over and, without calculated judgment or malicious intent on my part, I realize that, yes, this person is truly and unmistakably nuts.

What makes this even more difficult is when I come to know a person, have some real understanding of their character, and then I see that most of what they emanate through the grating obnoxiousness is a real and willful striving toward a notion of greatness that lacks a basis in reality. Great a man as he was, for example, Steve Jobs was a bona fide jerk toward those he worked with and who worked for him: he always lived as though he were some exceptional person to whom the rules did not apply. He would park in handicapped spaces because he felt like it; he would be unrestrained and particularly harsh in his criticisms of others. I do not mean to defame an otherwise good man who made real contributions to the world–what I mean to say is that our notions of greatness can become so inhuman, so draconian, and so self-centered that we lose sight of the real importance of life itself.

Contrast this pragmatic, one-dimensional view of greatness with the teachings of Catholic morality and spirituality. If we can put them side-by-side, we can see many similarities and differences, but the most foundational difference between our notions of greatness lies in the places of both charity and humility: the foundation and the keystone of the whole structure, respectively.

Humility and charity. Great men have feared very little, except these two things. Caesar could have embodied all of the great virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude, but when reminded that he too was a mere mortal prone to mistakes, he lashed out in fury. When the face of charity looked him in the eye and hinted at some sort of reality beyond politics, pragmatics, and power, he had it crucified, and hasn’t stopped since. How delightfully humorous it is, that the humility of a child is enough to make a great man lose himself in fear; how deliciously ironic that the love of a saint can make such “greatness” retreat to the bowels of Hell. No, this is not greatness at all–greatness refuses to associate itself with the petty trifles of the world and the stifling limitations one puts on oneself. If ego, slavery to one’s own opinions (and by extension, enslaving others to your own opinions), fretting over having one’s own way, and treating others as mere accessories in achieving your own vision, goals, and dreams don’t count as petty trifles and stifling limitations, then there’s no such thing as a petty trifle or stifling limitation.

The Christian call to greatness raises us up out of this one-dimensional and inhumanly pragmatic view of greatness and into something truly great, based on Truth and Charity. It calls us to recover the essence of our human nature and to fulfill it. Without humility we can’t know the truth of our nature; without charity, we can’t use it to aspire to anything. Any substitution to either of these is false and will lead to frustration, fruitlessness, and futility.

Humility means that we base our understanding of our nature and worth on what is authentic and true. That means that we do not base our worth on our work or achievements, but on the fundamental openness we have to God and to each other. Nothing else matters.

I find it telling that all the qualities that we associate with an ugliness of person all have to do with an overreaching ego, with a preoccupation with self and an exaltation of one’s own personality. The more you strive for greatness, the more you are to surely lose it, unless you first start by striving for humility.

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation. — St. Augustine


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website isSinging in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]

Nathan Kennedy

Nathan Kennedy

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