Matt's opinion

Friday, January 06, 2006

Food for thought

Don't be scared away by the title. I just want to ask a somewhat philosophical question before I leave the lab for the day. But first, a little background. One of the last things I did while I was in San Francisco last month was to purchase a book for my plane ride home. This wasn't exactly the smartest thing I've ever done considering my first flight didn't take off until 12:30am (yes, it was a red-eye) and I was so tired I couldn't do anything besides try and sleep, which was a fruitless effort if there ever was one.

I tell you that tidbit to tell you about the book I eventually did start reading. The title of the book is Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is a political biography of not only Lincoln, but 3 others who were contending for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. I haven't gotten through even half the book yet, but it's already got me thinking about my own goals and ambitions. The book consistently describes how each of the men being discussed were constantly studying and cultivating their minds for the sole purpose of becoming respected men, worthy of praise from others. In their eyes, greatness was measured by only two things: to have the respect and admiration of your peers, and that your memory would live on throughout the generations to come.

Needless to say that each of those men succeeded in their efforts to become great, although the only name known to every American today is Lincoln. Even though none of the others are still household names, their work set the stage for everything Lincoln accomplished while President. But I digress. This all got me thinking. Since a very early age I've had the same notion of greatness, and wanting to achieve it, but can't help thinking: can someone really will themselves to be great (using the same definition as above)? I don't think so. It takes more than that, or at least I'd like to think so. First of all , you must have some kind of social or moral issue, or situation of some kind that gives you an opportunity to act. In Lincoln's day that issue was slavery (not the institution itself, rather the expansion of it), in Washington's day it was the lack of a representative government, Kennedy had communism, and most recently our leaders face terrorism (although our current leaders will be remembered only by their lack of greatness). Not to say that every issue has to be political, but it most often is. Second, you have to be in a position to act on the issue or event.

I don't know if those two prerequisites will ever materialize, and if I'll be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of them. But that doesn't curb my ambition one bit. I'm hoping that you know the feeling I'm talking about. The more people who desire and work towards these lofty goals, the better our society will be. If you don't know the feeling I'm referring to, read the book. You'll get it.

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