Greatness

The myth of greatness pervades American society: the unnecessary headline of every political campaign, corporate mission, and personal narrative in an individualist-super-everything country. While D. Trump made great cool for some and uncouth for others, both sides of the aisle on this bus are all about big, awesome, exceptional, with different syllable-counts depending on their zip code's density. The problems with greatness are many, however: from maintaining the belief in the stack-ranking of "competitive" foreign & economic powers to the guaranteed other side of the greatness stick: terribleness - you can't have one without the other. Both Daniel Milo and Avram Alpert have written solid books illuminating mistaken greatness attributions and projects. Milo is a bit more thorough in his diagnosis and focused on the culture-making wrong-ish metaphors from evolutionary biology while Alpert goes looking for an individual and social philosophy middle way after his brief greatness-takedown. The crux of the analysis is this: nature and society can and do flourish without heroic and competitive myths driving individuals and groups.

Where Alpert and I differ is in the suggestion that a different totalizing worldview is needed to replace the exceptionalism religion after it's removed; a regular Joe attitude to fill Elon Musk-style shoes is unlikely to take hold, particularly in the USA. The implausibility of good enough or mediocrity as a way-of-life leaves room for other options to fill in for rising to the top of something. Music is a useful analogy here: there is popular music, but every ear hears every tune differently. To make music for one's own ear and stumble upon a few others who resonate with your tune is a beautiful thing, whether or not you're in the top 40. Your song doesn't need to displace others to be enjoyed either: there is no need for zero sum thinking in listening. One might call a song that attracts a few people and pleases its creator good enough or mediocre, but this over-does the anti-greatness point and helps to prove the non-viability of living by a single adjective, noun, or verb.

Here we come to a core issue with language. Humans have a tendency to fall in love with a word or phrase and try to re-make life and civilization around this phrase. This linguistic monogamy and/or monomania has lead people to go head over heels for greatness, America, Rome, god(s), justice, and family; a life's mission, vision, purpose boiled down to the language snack one is breathing and dying for. The thing is, language is a weak, conceptual, and shifting landscape while a life and the universe are strange, experiential, and variable. Attempts to assign clear, simple language to the odd and complex are interesting but ultimately fraught with misappropriated expectations and wild swings. Living a great life can easily become scraping by in a terrible malaise. Greatness becomes the metric by which days and years are judged and one can therefore fail dramatically or unspectacularly. "Good enough" suffers from the same double-edged risky sword.

In a society that celebrates superlatives as much as America (and thanks to cultural exports and economic virality, mostly the rest of the world too), one is sure to fall in love with a Lincoln-, Sandberg-, Hemingway-, Trump-, MLK-, Einstein-, or Musk-style superness hunt at some point. Awareness, re-valuation, and alternative-development are cures for these addictions and in the process of recovery, many will lose themselves in another greatness-opiate. The difficulty with true greatness alternatives is that they are relatively ineffable, at least in brief. Living a non-one-word life is no simple thing. Reading Zhuangzi seems to help, as does writing poetry, gardening, sleeping, cooking, and biking down country roads, but that's not a prescription, it's a brief summary of what I'm trying as I recover from a series of attempts at becoming great.

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