“We won’t all be great. Most of us will never be famous for anything, never discover anything, never invent anything useful, never win any awards. We may never achieve our dreams or even meet the goals we set for ourselves. Despite what the advertisers, preachers and politicians promise us, greatness will only be reserved for the few.”
This is my memory of the commencement speech made by the valedictorian of my university on the day that I graduated. That’s some “motivational” speech right? What a send-off into the big, wide world!
How keenly I felt my smallness that day. Even before the speech, just as I had entered the enormous arena filled with thousands of other graduates and their families. Gusts of cold air suddenly swept across me, emptying my body of warmth as the thunderous roar of the crowd rushed into my ears, crashing over me in waves unceasing. I felt so overwhelmed, so vulnerable against the grand scheme and scale abruptly confronting me that my immediate reaction was embarrassingly physical. I clumsily stumbled inside the arena, falling flat on my face for all to see and nearly causing a domino-chain of falling graduates behind me! The residual humiliation was all that warmed me as I sat stiffly in a cold metal chair several minutes later, listening to the smug valedictorian’s speech. We might as well have been dominoes, black and white, hard plastic to the proud, self-satisfied young man standing on the podium, I thought glumly. We were, after all, all dressed alike in black robes and square hats, barely distinguishable from each other.
“We won’t all be great. . . . Greatness will only be reserved for the few.”
That was nearly fifteen(!) years ago and I may have gotten some of the finer details of the speech wrong, which is why I won’t disclose specifics about it, nonetheless, subjectively speaking, this was all I got out if it. I faintly recall the valedictorian concluding “we are all [somehow] important even though we won’t all be great”, an open contradiction he failed to illuminate or reconcile. My overall impression was this supposed genius—the student with the highest grade in my class of thousands—was a self-satisfied, arrogant a**hole! It was a lousy speech that managed to sharpen all my insecurities into blade points as I prepared to leave the familiar institutions of school for those of work and the much bigger, more intimidating “real world”. But I would learn quite often in my adult life that he did not have a rare view of the world.
Many people have expressed this belief to me in subtle and not so subtle ways: The office coworker who always casually reminded me that “we’re just pen-pushers” whenever I was proud of accomplishing a task. The supervisor who was all too happy to declare, “You’re not in charge of anything!” and follow his aimless plea for more productivity with, “You can all be easily replaced!” The friends who kept saying, “We can’t all be as beautiful/thin/perfect as [insert celebrity name here].” I’ve been guilty of it myself, I have told myself so many times, so many ways, “you don’t matter” or “what you do won’t make any difference”.
These statements may seem bold, radical, even alluring at first. They may cast someone as “real”, blunt and down-to-earth but they can be insidiously self-defeating and toxic. Imagine if Einstein, or Darwin, or Rosa Parks, or Gandhi, or anyone who changed the course of history believed that they “didn’t really matter” and stayed silent as a result? Modern life as we know it would not be the same without them.
Whenever I think back to that graduation speech or hear someone saying such things, I immediately question their motivation: Are they in a position of power and trying to secure that power by putting people “in their place”? Or are they accepting of their lack of power and using it as an excuse for not taking any risks or putting in any real effort in life? Either way, the overwhelming message is to accept everything, especially one’s station in life, as it is and societal hierarchies, if not intractable, as more or less reasonable.
In contrast, another popular belief is one that values the individual, one that I have been quite partial to as a creative person. Yuval Harari cleverly defines it in his great book on human history and development, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives. . . . teachers and parents tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it. Only they themselves, not others, know their true worth.
Harari may seem to distance himself from this belief and objectify it as such, but he iterates throughout his writings that humans are especially good at “creating fictions”. This particular belief in individualism as well as that opposing it are both complete “fictions”. In fact, according to Harari, all beliefs—from money to legal contracts to the existence of God(s)—are “fictions” whose power derives only from the conviction, quantity and distribution of their believers.
To draw a clear contrast, let’s pretend the opposing views are mutually exclusive and ignore the murkier or cruder variations for a moment: On one side is the belief in the overwhelming prudence of the established hierarchy, trusting of leaders, admiring of those who supposedly earned their place at the top—presumably, they deserve to be there. On the other side is the belief in individualism, that each and every individual is as unique as a snowflake. Whether society can facilitate and/or recognize the unique gifts of each and every person doesn’t matter, every individual is valuable.
There seems to be every indication that these two ways of thinking are in open conflict with each other right now, within us and among us, as much as our nations are currently divided on politics, although this opposition doesn’t necessarily follow party lines. As much as I love to believe in individualism, the rise of populist leaders such as Trump has continually shown us what happens when people lose faith in the wisdom of the establishment, namely, the hierarchy of reputable news professionals. “Fake news”, “the liberal media”, “coastal elites”, these are all catch phrases from those trying to shake down the establishment for being biased and elitist. In terms of credible news sources, this is what happens when hierarchy no longer matters. Breitbart is suddenly on the same playing field as the New York Times.
The exciting new technologies we have now justify why these beliefs are reacting to and clashing with each other so dramatically. Now celebrities can wage Twitter wars with housewives, religious leaders with truck drivers, queens with unemployed writers, presidents with mothers of anthem kneeling football players and vice-versa. The contents of these feuds aside, it’s clear that individualism is unfurling, it is manifesting itself now more fully than ever before. A big part of me is absolutely thrilled about this! I am not one to bow to royals or stand in gaping awe of celebrities (although I do admire some). Most scientists and doctors today would be hard pressed to come up with legitimate proof that humans are fundamentally different from one another, no matter how famous they are, or what class, race or caste they belong to.
Unfortunately, this rapid growth of individualism is not completely positive, nor is it so pure. In fact, from a historical perspective there is nothing pure about us humans at all. We are consummate masters at cherry-picking any and all ideas that bolster our sense of entitlement and desire for more power. I can easily imagine the valedictorian at my graduation complaining about the system being flawed and rigged against him in frustration had he been an unrecognized genius instead of one who was awarded the highest distinction that day. It should come as no surprise that the so-called “anti-establishment radicals” of the far right are the same internet trolls who constantly disparage liberals as “snowflakes” for their own idealistic individualism. Populists have risen to power claiming to fight for the “common man” and being rebelliously “anti pc”—yet, once in power, seem incredibly quick to support age old patriarchal and racial hierarchies erected for millennia.
As much as my anger sparks and burns like a flare under the casual oppression of such constricting and condescending statements as “greatness will only be reserved for the few”, unbridled individualism doesn’t seem so great either. Do we really want to live in a society where no one cares what anyone else thinks? Doesn’t that seem disturbingly close to a world of psychopaths? And we shouldn’t forget that horrible atrocities were committed in the past by those trying to achieve purely egalitarian ideals, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (source). Not all forms of hierarchy are bad.
What now? Is there anything worth believing in anymore?
I’ll never forget the classmate who made this statement during a literature class: “We are just a conglomeration of sugars, proteins, chemicals bonding, reacting to one another. Life has no meaning. It is a delusion to attach value or meaning to anything.” Arguing that everything is a delusion does not cancel anything out—nor does it diminish the necessity or power of these delusions! It is important to note that if this person truly believed in his statement, he would have accepted all opinions as equally delusional, including his own, but in fact, he could not. Just a few moments after that statement, he tried to silence my counter arguments by saying I wasn’t “qualified to have an opinion” because I didn’t have a degree in psychology. I strongly doubt anyone could possess pure objectivity free of any personal bias.
If all beliefs are fictions, all things being equal, it’s simply a matter of finding a belief that works best for both the individual and society, the minority and the majority, the private and the public but, indeed, that is one of the most difficult things to do! Not least of which because many people are (blissfully) unaware their beliefs being fictions, as such in their inherent plasticity, and continue to argue professing attainment of an “absolute truth”. Additionally, we fail time and time again to thoroughly investigate the meanings behind the terms “great”, “insignificant” or even “individual” as much as we casually pepper them in conversation all the time! None of these things exist in a vacuum. Being “great” cannot exist alone, just as the pinnacle of a pyramid cannot exist without its base. Saying that greatness will only be reserved for the few should not diminish the importance of the many who put those few on top and there should be a very good reason why they were put up there in the first place—none of them should be “because they inherited it”—no, greatness should be earned, its foundations well grounded.
That downer of a graduation speech wouldn’t have stung so badly if it didn’t make the blind assumption that our society was a real meritocracy, which, sadly, it is not. For years, for generations, for centuries, since the dawn of mankind, we have not been equal. We have not even had the equal chance to grow optimally, to prove ourselves, or even be allowed to contribute. As much as I love to believe that each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives (Harari), I must admit that having a purpose in life greater than oneself is something I also really want and every person I have ever known has expressed this very same desire.
Who’s to say, “We won’t all be great,” to at least one person each of us is great.
Most of us will never be famous for anything, never discover anything, never invent anything useful, never win any awards. We live in imperfect societies which fail to meet our emotional needs, let alone recognize our vast potential.
We may never achieve our dreams or even meet the goals we set for ourselves. Despite what the advertisers, preachers and politicians promise us, greatness will only be reserved for the few. What if everyone stopped trying or caring? What if all the teachers in our schools, the bus drivers, the salespeople, the cooks in the restaurants, what if everyone just settled for mediocre? What makes things in life truly “priceless” if not someone’s undivided care and attention?
Greatness, if it is ever going to be honest with itself, should not be insecure, should not be afraid of losing its status, should strive for fairness, should allow each and every person to earn their place based on merit. Greatness should strive for its highest potential. Now that is greatness worth believing in.
This is a work of nonfiction by M.P. Baecker.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker ©2018.
A heartfelt thanks to Tom Cummings at his great blog, Tom Being Tom for mentioning Harari on several occasions, prompting me to read Sapiens and thus, inspiring this work!
Citations: Harari, Yuval Noah (2011), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 113
18 thoughts on “Improbabilities”
I am great because I feel good in my skin. I am famous for good cooking and bitching, I have discovered I couldn’t change much, I have invented a way to stop time, my son is my biggest and most precious award. I am pretty happy with what I have achieved and the goals I met. I will be among the rare few.
Does this sound too pretentious?
Lovely post. Enjoyed it A LOT.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’d say you are really great!👏👏👏👏
I love good cooking and good bitching myself😄 Those are one of the highest honors in my opinion😂!!! Even better to combine the two!🥂I also hate it when people bother me when cooking, I am a very easy-going person, but the few times in my life where I’ve thrown temper tantrums (as an adult) have been when someone criticizes or bothers me in the kitchen👍!
I love what you said about your son, I am with you on that, I am in heaven when I am with my kids!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Bitching cooks, that’s who we are. 🙂
Yeap, me too. I’m pretty independent, not really a team-player. Even before, when I worked at companies/schools, I liked making my own rules and working alone more than working on a problem together. If I screw up, it’s my fault and nb else’s. You understand that, don’t you?
Throwing tantrums is second nature to me.
Heaven… I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
This is what I sing to my boy when we dance (inside).
LikeLiked by 1 person
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love this. I have a feeling you are/were an academic: your ‘argument’ or message is one that is very articulate, well thought out and offers us all angles.
My unsolicited observation aside, we are of the same mind when it comes to your conclusion, “greatness should strive for its greatest potential”. I think if we do the work to figure out what brings us joy and do that/those things, we will reach our potential and it will be great; and we will, in turn, be great.
I was listening to Jack Canfield this morning (author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul series”) and he was speaking to this. He quoted Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This might seem slightly disconnected from what you focusing on here, but I think it does come down to this. We are all so fearful of not ‘being great’ or that our contribution won’t matter or that we won’t achieve all the things society convinces us we need to be successful. We forget to listen to what our soul is calling us to do and our hearts truly desire. I think it’s almost impossible to reach our potential if we don’t align with this.
So thank you for reiterating something I clearly needed to hear today. I’m glad we ‘met’ and I’m excited to read more!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you for your amazing read and lovely comment!! I am so glad we found each other! I can’t wait to read more from your blog!
I graduated with two BA’s: Visual Art and English Lit, with an Art History minor, I would have gone on to a master’s in Painting but I decided to go out into the world and start earning a living instead😄! I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had taken that other fork in the road. So, officially, I am not an accredited “academic” in that I don’t have a doctorate, but I always have read voraciously and learn from others as much as I can! Sometimes I think if the “real” elite academics met me in person they would throw me out because I can’t pronounce French words and I have a very unassuming, humble demeanor (so I’m told)😂😂! It is a great compliment if my work is seen as top notch! Thank you!
That Jack Canfield quote you mentioned is so beautiful “the world needs is people who have come alive” and what you wrote is spot on, “We forget to listen to what our soul is calling us to do and our hearts truly desire. I think it’s almost impossible to reach our potential if we don’t align with this.” I couldn’t agree more. Another blogger, Tom (Tom being Tom), mentioned something along these lines too, “Define greatness from within and it is apparent.”
What is so terribly heartbreaking and tragic to me is the people who have somehow convinced themselves or become convinced in that awful proclamation, “Greatness will only be reserved for the few.” As result, they make very little effort in their lives or completely lose their sense of gratitude/appreciation for their own life itself and all the potential it has to offer. I have seen this in my own family, it is truly a relinquishment of power, the incredible power each of us has been given at birth. We each have been given the gift of one life, a life in which we are the true masters of and where we can be truly great.
Reblogged this on Cristian Mihai.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I really enjoyed this. It’s wonderful landing on a blog post that genuinely gives rise to contemplation. Your valedictorian sounds deeply misguided. Maybe greatness doesn’t have to be about fame and vast recognition at all.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks so much! Your comment really made my day! I often wonder why certain memories keep resurfacing repeatedly, like this one of my graduation, there seems to be lots of reminders, it seems linked to things going on now, of a larger scale and beyond my own individual experience. I like to bring it out, examine it and try look for a pattern. Thanks for looking in with me!
This was absolutely wonderful, MP! I just adore Harari, as you know, and your interpretation of his work, coupled with the memory of your (can I say “shitbag” here?) valedictorian, and your unfortunate mishap at graduation, all weaved together to tell a tale I can’t wait to read and read again. Just marvelous!
“We won’t all be great.” We ARE all great! Goodness gracious, folks, define greatness within, and in your contribution to others, and greatness is apparent.
Unfortunately, what is impressed upon us — sold upon us — is the opposite. We can’t ALL be great, can we? So we get (can I say “asshats” here?) folks like you mentioned, whose only job seems to impress upon us how little we are in this company/church/life. We don’t matter! We are just cogs in the wheel!
That’s what they want us to believe. Poppycock.
A snowflake is one of the most beautiful and unique things in the world. Each one is great. Together, they make snow, which is also great. Not a single one glistens brighter in the sun than another. Not a single one more important, or less so.
A hundred years ago (35?) I read The Watchmen, and felt broken, a bit, as a teenager, when Rorshach looked to the sky and realized we are all insignificant nothings living unvaluable lives (much like your classmate did). I remember walking away from that experience, that lesson, not feeling like we are nothing, but feeling instead that, if there is no God or purpose to the universe, then the universe is a blank canvas. All of us are a blank canvases. 35 years before I read Harari I said to myself, “we get to create our own stories.” We get to paint the canvas for ourselves, our world, our universe.
Society has painted us a canvas. It is, as you so astutely pointed out, horribly flawed. It is written and embellished by those who love the gains they unduly receive. I would like nothing better than to break that canvas, to paint a new picture of who we are, who we can be. We. Are. All. Great.
I’ll finish with this: when I get into a discussion with someone who loves the current mock-meritocracy, and they tell me that the poor, for instance, have no right to the money the rich have “earned,” I tell them those folks did not earn that money alone. We all contributed, as workers and merchants and buyers, to their magnificent wealth. We all contribute to the gains of society, and we all should benefit from them. Like you say, “being “great” cannot exist alone, just as the pinnacle of a pyramid cannot exist without its base.”
I say we are all in this together, and together we’ll be strong. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t all share in the bounty of discovery; we know how quickly the world can end, now, in fire.
Again, I loved this piece, MP! You are truly a talent and treasure of our time!
LikeLiked by 2 people
I can’t thank you enough for your kind comments and the truly priceless value of your thoughtful reading!!!!
This was a very difficult story for me to write. I felt like I was wrestling with big demons and felt both relieved and sick to my stomach upon completing it! A few people have pointed out to me that they some trouble following or understanding my conclusions, which prompted me to rewrite the last portion slightly a few times after hitting publish!😅 But in the end, I felt I couldn’t alter it anymore without sacrificing the complexity of the things that I was grappling/struggling/wrestling with. I knew after finishing it that it would NOT be an easy read because my priority was in capturing the “demons” as fully as I could instead of making it a cleaner narration. I truly appreciate anyone taking the time to read this, whether they liked it or not!
But I must say, I am so relieved that you got it and it resonated with you!!!
I LOVED what you just wrote: “We ARE all great! Goodness gracious, folks, define greatness within, and in your contribution to others, and greatness is apparent. Unfortunately, what is impressed upon us — sold upon us — is the opposite. We can’t ALL be great, can we?”
You just summed up in those few sentences, what I tried to convey multiple times😂👍 in this whole piece!!!! Heck, I would even use that as the banner and advert for it!!! You are so talented!
As much as I love people becoming aware of how constructed, therefore fictional, superlatives and hierarchies are – I also see that it leads to apathy, to a weariness and lack of enthusiasm about anything in life, which is extremely self-defeating and toxic. As you have seen and realized for yourself at a young age at that(!). If everything is a delusion, then truly EVERYTHING it must be, then that still brings us back to the same blank canvas that you described so well! Infinity minus Infinity = zero! A good starting point as any.
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it here for now, I wanted to comment on your latest post too. From the beginning, each of us has been given the same thing: one life, a life where we are the greatest, the hero and the most important person. We shouldn’t let anyone convince us that we can’t be any of those!
LikeLiked by 2 people
I know what you mean, my reply risked going on and on as well!
I just re-read it, in the light of what you revealed, and found it even better the second time. These are big concepts, no doubt, and I can understand how difficult it must be to follow the conclusions without the proper foundation. To get to the point of understanding the fictional nature of humanity’s stories we must first wipe that canvas clean, the one we have been presented with and indoctrinated by our whole life. For many, for most, the cultural impression is not a fiction, everything BUT that impression is.
As a quick aside, I’ve come to realize that very thing in my arguments about Trump, with friends and family. Having disengaged from these arguments, for the most part, I watch as others strike and parry from both sides and realize that both sides are entirely beholden to their own stories. Liberals are all weak-hearted saps. Conservatives are all heartless bastards. I guess its just easier that way. I’ve taken the easy way a time or two.
But the harder lessons, the ones we should be focused on, evade us, without the proper foundation. Without the courage to face the meaninglessness of existence we cannot summon the will to provide new meaning. And, as you’ve stated, many get caught in the first half of that discovery, and some never recover from it. So why risk it?
I don’t have an answer for that one, yet. But I’ll do some exploring down that path. What’s the point in shedding the illusion, anyway? I only know, from my experience, how well that has worked for me.
Thank you for this, again, and for reading and responding to my own elucidations over at TBT. 🙂
Where do we go from here, now that we know so much? I don’t know, I only know the way things are now – where the few get so much and the many get so little – doesn’t work. We must all be allowed to be ourselves (individualism) and still work together for the common good.
It sounds so simple when I put it like that. 😉
LikeLiked by 3 people
It is truly great to “talk” to you here! Don’t be surprised to see parts of my responses from our convos popping up in my next posts! I’m feeling so inspired!
I struggle with what you describe here MP. The meaning of it all, what has all “this” even been for when I think about my life and history. It feels like at times we are just spinning our wheels. We will make so much progress and then just a one or two bleepholes and voolah, back to the dark ages again! UGH! I touched on the topic of Emergence yesterday – a bunch of unrelated people, places and things working together to make order out of what would otherwise be chaos. It kind of ties in to some of your message here. What I’m trying to remember to focus on is keeping my inner fragment of God, my “spark” ignited by feeding the flame with the food of love. It’s hard in a world of so much artificial love, artificial spirit to do that but it is possible. Focus on what you love the most – feel that warmth that comes from your chest doing that and do more of it — make it a momentary practice. We can inspire change in the world…in others…but ultimately we can only change ourselves. Hugs to you!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks as always for taking the time to read my stories and share your thoughts!! I really appreciate it, especially with this one.
I would also like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read this story, whether they liked it or not, whether they got anything important from it or not.
These topics of “greatness” and individualism have been preoccupying me for a lifetime. You use the word “struggle” in the first sentence of your comment, which is exactly what it felt like writing this piece! I was wrestling my demons. Once in a while, I try to grapple with forces that intimidate me profoundly and this is one of those instances. Making meaning out of life, self and its relationship to the whole without using the familiar avenues of religion or convention. We each have to find it and make it our own.
I think it’s great that we can be supportive of each other! I will be commenting on those thoughtful and informative posts of yours soon!
LikeLiked by 1 person
MP My husband reminds me quite often when I notice not too many views or likes because I’ve written about something unsavory and unpleasant: “Who are you writing for? If you aren’t writing for yourself than why bother?” We can’t focus on how many read our stuff, even there is one and it’s ourselves then we’ve done well. Eventually the message will be in the blogosphere *hopefully lol when those the messages are also intended for are ready for it. You are writing from your own experience and heart and that is exactly the place it needs to be. Writing is a very therapeutic tool for exorcising demons and helping others see their own. Support – YES! Awesome vibes – DEFINITELY! Keep writing from the sun between your chest MP.
LikeLiked by 2 people
What a beautiful comment!! Thank you! That audience of one is the most important (and the most critical)!
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it here for now so I have time to visit your blog!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Comments are closed.