Mar 14, 2015
Is Greatness Really All That Great?
"And I can't stop till the whole world knows my name"
--"Centuries" by Fall Out Boy
This past week I had the chance to watch Whiplash, a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer and his sadistic mentor. J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy award for best supporting actor for his performance has the flashier role. His character, the music teacher Terence Fletcher uses abusive, highly suspect "motivational" methods to draw greatness out of his students. But for me, the real thought provoking character is the student Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller). It's really his ambition, not Fletcher's abuse that drives his rise to greatness (and the movie as well). He succeeds not because of but in spite of his teacher's methods, which in the end are morally and practically bankrupt as well as dishonest. A less driven student would have been broken by Fletcher's abuse. So the film raised an interesting question for me: What does it take to be truly great? Is it worth the cost?
I'm not sure that the striving for greatness is a Christian imperative. Personal excellence? Sure. But what about being the Best, as in better than anyone else in the world? As far as I can tell, achieving that means that everything else must be sacrificed, including and perhaps especially relationships. After all, isn't it people that most often get in the way of achieving legendary greatness. Of course there are all the people who must lose so you can win, those whose talents must prove less than your own. But there are also the people who demand time away from your pursuit of greatness. The spouses, the children, the parents, the less motivated peers. If it's possible to achieve singular greatness while maintaining a "work-life balance," I haven't heard about it.
The drive for this kind of greatness at its end is truly a drive for significance that will last beyond this lifetime. It is a push for immortality. Nieman articulates this well during a dinner table scene in which he scorns his brothers' accomplishments and ambitions. His family members argue for the importance of people who love you, who know you personally. He retorts that we don't know Charlie Parker personally but we are still talking about him. This is the kind of greatness he aspires to. But for those of us who believe in Jesus, this is not our only path to immortality--indeed it is a poor substitute for actual immortality. Jesus' definition of greatness was not about the acclaim, honor, or notice of the masses, but about great service. The servants are the legends of the Kingdom of God. Sure there are those who dedicated their lives in service to others that have become household names--Mother Teresa and Jesus Himself are two that come to mind. But I have a hard time believing that their dedication to the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low was motivated by a desire to be recognized as the world's greatest servant..
My goal in life is to strive for personal excellence on a daily basis. For me that means being fully present, not wallowing in the past or obsessing over the future, but appreciating and giving myself fully to the now. It means giving my best to whatever the day brings. It means remembering what is most important: That the greatness I achieve in my relationships--with my family, friends, students, and colleagues are the accomplishments that will mean the most to me at the end of my life. It means trying to make a positive impact in the world not for the personal glory it will bring me for centuries to come, but the for the personal difference it will make in the lives I touch. These goals may not be compatible with the strive for singular greatness in a particular field of endeavor. I might strive for excellence as a teacher, writer, or whatever else, but not at the cost of these things. They are simply more important. In a way Andrew Neiman was right. Greatness can only be achieved if everything else is sacrificed. It's just that sometimes greatness itself may be what needs to be sacrificed to achieve a life of true substance, richness, and eternal significance.
"Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant."