Assuming that personal greatness is greatness of ‘self’, the pursuit of greatness necessarily begins with an understanding of who we are. Most people will choose to define him/her self by his/her role (or position) in society; a father, a mother, a vice-president, a CEO, an accountant, a lawyer, a consultant, a businessperson, a basketball player or a farmer. In a society where material wealth and competitive individualism are honored, we are led to translate the concept of personal greatness into winning within and among these various roles. So by defining one’s self in relation to the roles we assume we can’t help but to focus attention externally—outwardly and not inwardly—we actually lose sight of who we are.
In our society, amassing material wealth and personal greatness have become correlates if not synonyms. In effect, we spend our lives striving to play the more socially revered roles; we yearn to have a career, to be something, to have more. But is this really synonymous with being a great person?
As long as we define our self by externalities—by position or possessions—we will never be secure. Not only will we likely never know our true self—the human being we truly are—our sense of self will be quite precarious. An externally referenced self-identity will always be in question, for whatever career we choose, rank we attain, and wealth we acquire can be lost or taken away. With this threat ever present we are tossed about in a sea of fear and doubt, forever feeling compelled to have more and to be something more. We can never have enough.
As we believe our main purpose is to excel in a career, we neglect greatness in living, and thus never realize our fullest potential; we never achieve true personal greatness. We never quite get to being and becoming what we potentially are.
Why is this distinction between socially conditioned superiority and greatness in living important? Our life, no matter how we choose to live, affects the lives of others; it affects those not only near us but those who will come after us.
The history of humankind is an accounting of the consequences from the choices individuals have made in their journey along the path toward either greatness or superiority. Greatness requires choosing to seek to enhance the living of life in and through our existence and to not be led to seek to enhance the existence of things in life. Achieving personal greatness in life requires letting go of the irrational desire to define life by things external to life. To add value through our very being—to lead in life—we must begin to value life itself. Perhaps if those in positions of authority had this understanding—and we cooperated with only those who had—conditions in society might support far more greatness.
You can measure the strength of a person’s commitment by the amount of effort he or she is willing to put into its execution, regardless of how hard the world pushes back. People affirm their personae–their synthesis of society’s myths into their personal one–even after countless failures to attain what they want, because once and a while they succeed, and so, like pigeons in a Skinnerian experiment, they keep pecking at the lever that gives them corn, which rewards them on a random reinforcement schedule.
So Americans, utterly brainwashed in school to be competitive, to win, to be successful, and by the media and its mythological imagery–most noxiously, by the “aspirational living” experiences they get from so-called “reality shows”–maintain their commitment to the American creed of secular materialism, even as the standards of living of the bottom three quintiles of the population erodes, almost monthly, before our very eyes.
History and B.F. Skinner teach a similar lesson: Behavior patterns are likely to become extinguished as the subjective probability of reward declines to zero. Cultural patterns, as normative order, will survive forever unless the material conditions of survival requires their abandonment. Even then, they won’t be abandoned without a credible alternative.
So getting back to your key message, Gregory, I think the world is giving the “American Success Theme” a solid beating right now. People are changing their consumption patterns to accommodate this new reality, putting the survival of their households above the hamster wheel of “keeping up with the Joneses.” How wonderful it would be if the concept of self you described within and between the lines of your post this week were the one to replace reified selves that our culture has hitherto impelled us to become.
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