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Condemned to Greatness

Adam said, “I’ve wondered why a man of your knowledge would work a desert hill place.”

“It’s because I haven’t the courage,” said Samuel. “I could never quite take the responsibility. When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name–but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease. But it’s nice for a mediocre man to know that greatness must be the loneliest state in the world.”
“I’d think there are degrees of greatness,” Adam said.
“I don’t think so,” said Samuel. “That would be like saying there is a little bigness. No. I believe when you come to that responsibility the hugeness and you are alone to make your choice. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other–cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad to chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other? None of my children will be great either, except perhaps Tom. He’s suffering over the choosing right now. It’s a painful thing to watch. And somewhere in me I want him to say yes. Isn’t that strange? A father to want his son condemned to greatness! What selfishness that must be.”
I love this passage from Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It’s maybe my favorite of the whole book. When I read it for the first time, I was captured by Samuel’s recognition that greatness–which in my mind is really the result of anyone’s fervent and loyal pursuit of some vocation–comes at a cost. It is easy to glorify our goals and aims in life while overlooking the fact that a “yes” to one thing is often (if not always) a “no” to something else. I’d like to think that it isn’t as black-and-white as Samuel suggests; that real community and companionship is possible as we take on the individual responsibility necessary for major vocational commitments; that life infrequently occurs in this “either/or” fashion.
At the same time, I deeply sympathize with his words. For me, a “yes” to all the possibilities at Harvard is necessarily a type of “no” to the present life I lead here at home in Seattle. New friendships will come, but older friendships must take new shape. In order for new projects to arise, old ones must be finished or set aside. I currently face all the “costs” of going to Harvard while anxiously awaiting the relatively unknown possibilities on the other side of the country.
I am quite lonely in this transition, knowing that it is my choice and will necessarily cost me some of the things I cherish so much right now. There is some comfort in the fact that I believe we are all condemned to greatness. It is my time to “suffer over the choosing,” but we all will. This is life.
I don’t think of myself as a very courageous person, but I am practicing. I’m choosing, and I’m trying.
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