Dreams of Greatness

January 10, 2010

2 min read


The focus on greatness can distract us from the real accomplishments of life.

“A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time
Before the mortar of his zeal
Has a chance to congeal
The cub is dashed from his lips
The flame is snuffed aborning
He’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime.”

For those of you too young to have seen the original (and who missed its latest Broadway incarnation) those poignant words are actually from the show “Mary Poppins.” Disney may not necessarily be the place to turn for words of wisdom, but in this case they have hit upon something deep and profound.

While not everyone is “brought to rack and ruin in his prime” (although we did see some spectacular flame-outs in the past year), I think we’ve all had a taste of George Banks’ experience.

We all have dreams of greatness, frequently unrealized. Perhaps we didn’t know how. Perhaps we were misdirected. Perhaps our goals were unclear or our strategy unfocused. Perhaps we came close but the price was too high (we weren’t willing to emulate Mr. Banks’ distant relationship with his children, his sense that he was too busy to play with them).

How do we make peace with this recognition? We don’t have Mary Poppins and her magical medicine – although it is certainly true that a spoonful of sugar -- a positive attitude -- makes a big difference.

Maybe we need to revise our goals -- not to “settle” or be “more realistic” – rather because perhaps being great is not the right goal after all.

When our ancestress, Chana, prayed for a child, the Talmud suggests something atypical about her prayer. She didn’t ask that he be a doctor or a lawyer, that he find the cure for cancer or be first in his class at Harvard. She didn’t even ask that he be the wisest or most righteous (or, as I did, that he be the Mashiach!)

Chana prayed for a “son who would not stand out, either in ability or physical characteristics.” She hoped for an average child, in colloquial terms, a mensch.

And maybe that’s an appropriate goal for all of us – just to be good, just to be kind, just to be thoughtful (with "just" being slightly tongue in cheek). It’s possible that the focus on great achievements (be they physical or spiritual) and great recognition (on a physical or spiritual plane) distracts from the real accomplishments of life.

It’s actually not easy to be a mensch. It’s not easy to think of others before yourself. It’s not easy to be sensitive to the feelings and moods of those around us. It’s not easy to give without expectation of getting. It’s not easy to smile at others while facing life’s challenges. It’s not easy to rejoice in their joy while confronting your sorrow. It’s not easy to live without fame or honor and remain secure in the knowledge that you are doing your best.

But that’s the basis of real growth as a person. It’s the basis of real relationships with others. It’s definitely the basis of a relationship with God.

And perhaps that is true greatness after all. Perhaps that’s the stuff a man’s dreams should be made of.

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