On greatness

Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let greatness blossom.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

“I think continually,” the poet Stephen Spender wrote, “of those who were truly great.” Personally I often find myself thinking of something else, but there are certainly people, living and dead, who I would consider great.

Now before I go any further I should make this clear that this post is in no way intended to be inspirational. It will not contain any sentence that might be put onto a poster of a soaring condor and stuck up in a cubicle farm to encourage people to hit their KPIs this quarter. It is probably a decent rule of thumb to state that if someone even has KPIs they are unlikely to be doing anything useful or worthwhile.

But none of this detracts from the fact that there are useful and worthwhile things to be done, and many of them are being done by exceptional people. Off the top of my head, I can think of Simon Fairlie (whose autobiography I reviewed last week), Vandana Shiva, Martin Crawford, Colin Tudge, Gabe Brown – and that’s just in the area of food and farming.

Indeed, there are so many of these exceptional people around that I do wonder how exceptional they are. That is to say, many, if not most, people have talents and capacities that usually never come to the fore. It may simply be luck that enables them to blossom.

Consider, for example, the case of Charles Darwin. On his own admission, at school he was considered “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common intelligence.” Neither did he show any exceptional promise at Cambridge, where he largely neglected his studies. He was supposed to go into the Church, which in those days was a kind of fallback option for men of his class who had no special professional vocation. (This was quite a useful institution; throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England an awful lot of scientific and especially mathematical research was conducted by country parsons with time on their hands.)

Darwin had long had an interest in what was called in those days natural history, but it was largely good fortune and good connections that got him the gig on HMS Beagle which not only made his name but also furnished him with the raw material for his theory of evolution through natural selection. Had he gone on to be another obscure country vicar, nobody would have paid any attention even if he’d still come up with it, which seems unlikely.

Of course, in the nature of things we don’t know how many potential Darwins there are knocking around. But history does seem to lend colour to the saying: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Who would have predicted that an unpromising West Point cadet who graduated 21st out of a class of 39 would go on to become the victorious commander of the Union armies in the American Civil War? Or, again, that an obscure Huntingdonshire farmer would be offered – and decline – the crown of England?

These examples suggest that opportunities are often available in times of crisis, and the good news for any potential Grants or Cromwells out there is that times of crisis will soon be upon us, if they aren’t already. This is not, of course, necessarily good news for the rest of us. I don’t want to fall foul of Godwin’s Law, so I’ll point you instead to the career of Benito Mussolini.

But to return to my earlier examples. There are useful things to be done in these times, and most of us can do something. Apart from anything else, taking action will dispel those feelings of panic and impotence that so often threaten to overwhelm us once we start to notice what’s going on with the world. Whatever you’re going to have to face in the future, the stronger you are mentally the better your chances will be of dealing with it.

Consider learning a new practical skill: sewing, baking, gardening, herbal medicine. Do it now, when you can still afford to screw up. For example, we are having a go at growing potatoes this year. Potatoes are cheap and freely available; if it all goes wrong, we’ll still have access to potatoes, and with any luck we’ll be able to learn from it. There may come a time when potatoes are no longer cheap and/or freely available, and it makes sense to be able to grow our own potatoes before that happens,

You don’t need to be able to fix everything, which is frankly a good thing, because you can’t. But you can make a difference to your own life and the lives of those around you. And that’s not a bad definition of a life well lived.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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