Greatness: From Witness to Participant

Witnessing greatness is exciting.  Collecting unique experiences is a good use of time.  But the value extends beyond entertainment.  When we look for what we have in common with those who have done something extraordinary, it also has a special ability to inspire greatness in us. 

What’s up with that smile, girl?

My wife and I spent some time in Paris on a recent trip and were excited to make our first visit to the Louvre.  The largest art museum in the world, they say it would take over 100 days to see every work there if you spent 30 seconds looking at each one.  Given its sheer size and volume, there are many ways to experience it.  Tour companies offer a variety of options. Some of them advertise themselves as; “IN & OUT- see the most famous pieces in 90 minutes”.  The Mona Lisa is by far the most famous painting there.  Everyone wants to see it  (apparently it’s about the only thing some people want to see).  They make a bee line straight to the room she’s in, elbow their way through the crowd that surrounds her, snap a few pictures, head for the exit, and go about their day.  Check.  Louvre visit complete.
Of DaVinci’s numerous inventions, the selfie stick wasn’t one of them.
I found this puzzling.  Why would people seek out such a limited experience?  Pulling up a photo of the Mona Lisa from anywhere else in the world will give you a much better view.  No one will step on your toes or box you out to snap a photograph.
Furthermore, I don’t think most of it’s visitors understand just why it’s a big deal in the first place.  Most haven’t studied Da Vinci’s brilliant use of geometry or the revolutionary techniques he invented and unveiled for the first time.  I didn’t either.  I just wanted to see it because it was special. Seven million others flock there every year to have the experience of seeing it in person.  We don’t need to understand it to appreciate it.  Greatness is recognizable to even the untrained eye.  We were all just there to see something legendary. 

Rafa & Serena

The next day we went to the French Open.  Thanks to a rain delay the previous day, Rafael Nadal would be playing right before Serena Williams on the same court.

Seeing two historically great players back to back was a real treat.  Rafael Nadal went on from the early round victory we saw that day to win his record 11th French Open title, and has 17 Grand Slam titles to his credit.  Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slams and is considered by many to be the most dominate athlete of the modern era.  
One of the unique things about tennis is the intimacy.  The emotion of every point is on display (the grunts, shreeks, and screams are 
worth the price of admission on their own).  The behavior of the crowd was also interesting to observe.  In tennis, the rooting interest is more connected to the quality of the play rather than the player.  Throughout most of match the applause followed the appreciation of the play… until the end.  As the matches approached potential conclusion points, there was a noticeable shift in the rooting interest of the crowd.  The general acknowledgment of quality play gave way to clear support for the favorite.   Cheers for Serena & Nadal circulated through the arena with increasing frequency and intensity.  I found myself joining in.  It wasn’t enough to see those who were historically great- we wanted to see them be great THAT day, live before our eyes.  We wanted to witness greatness firsthand.    

From Witness to Participant

We’re drawn to greatness.  We go out of our way to get as close as possible.  We want to reach out and touch it, to take the picture, have a story to share, to say we were there.  Experiences produce lifetime memories, and if that’s where it ended, that would be fine.  But there’s more to it than that.  Leaving the Louvre, walking out of Roland Garros, I felt appreciation for what I had seen and gratitude for the opportunity to see it.  But more than anything, I felt inspired.   
There are different ways to react to witnessing greatness, and the one we choose dictates how valuable those experiences prove to be.  We can marvel at what they do & what they’ve done.  We can conclude that what they’ve accomplished is extraordinary, so they must be too.  Surely they’re made up of different stuff than the rest of us regular folk.  
The other reaction to greatness goes beyond awe and appreciation.  It’s simple curiosity. When we consider what we have in common with them instead of what sets them apart, we open ourselves up to a whole new realm of possibility.

They’re just people too

Here’s the thing; they’re just people too.  They aren’t super human.  They aren’t made of any special ingredients that were left out of the rest of us.  They’re made of the same stuff as you and me. They doubt themselves. They’re afraid of odd things. For all their strengths, they have crippling weaknesses. They fall flat on their face and fail miserably (often very publicly for the world to see). They have a laundry list of shortcomings and – just like you and me. It’s not easy for anyone.  Their paths were littered with obstacles and challenges.


DaVinci was the illigitimate child of a 16 year old mother. His obsession with learning caused him to be perpetually distracted- bouncing from one project to the next before any were finished.  He is said to have expressed deep regret late in life for, “never having completed a single work.”
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Nathan Terborg

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