As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be great. But as soon as I was old enough to understand ego and humility, I felt guilty for wanting to be great.
I was 5 years old when it first consciously occurred to me that I might be important. I’m embarrassed to tell things such as this — because it can sound like childish immaturity — but there was more than that to what it felt like.
I was outside of our home on Holly Hill Drive in Atlanta. I was studying the foundation of the house and trying to figure out how the house was built. Suddenly, it occurred to me out of the blue that there were five people in my family and that I was now 5 years old. Somewhere in my immature little brain, this seemed important.
This coincidence made me feel important. And for the first time in my conscious memory, I was struck by the feeling that I had a responsibility — not to myself and my ego, but to others — to do something meaningful. I had an intense desire to do something important — to be someone important — and to somehow give my life great meaning for the world.
Ever since that day, I have gone back and forth in this struggle. Something deep inside me still feels called — in the divine sense of the word — to be great somehow. Not in the sense of pampering my ego, but in the sense of changing the world in some significant way — of living a life that makes a difference for others.
But at the same time, there’s another part of me which pooh-poohs that idea and wants to let the world fall apart while I withdraw and become a hermit. I go back and forth between these two radically different plans.
When God called Moses to go bring his people out of Egypt in the biblical story, Moses first refused. He said he couldn’t do it. He had a number of excuses. I’m certainly no Moses, but there’s something in the story that accuses me in the same way.
The Hebrew Bible also tells us the story of Jonah. God told Jonah to go deliver a simple message to the people of Nineveh. He was supposed to warn them to turn from their sins or else face the wrath of God. The story tells about how Jonah didn’t want to do this. In various ways, he tried to escape the call God had placed on him — but God refused to allow him to run.
After almost losing his life, Jonah finally gave in and obeyed God — and the people of Nineveh repented when they heard his message.
All of my life, I have gotten a taste of what greatness could be like for me. My notions of what it would feel like — and how it could affect people’s lives — have changed as I grew and matured.
I first wanted to be Capt. James T. Kirk, commanding a starship and exploring the universe. Then I wanted to shatter the world of politics. When I was a teen-ager, I started wanting to become president of the United States. I didn’t know quite why — especially since I understand politics now in a very different way than I did then — but I thought it would be my place from which to be great. This wasn’t a passing whim. For years, it was my very firm goal.
At other times, I wanted to be a Baptist minister and an electrical engineer and a psychologist and a dozen other things. Every time I had a new narrative for how my life could change the world for others, I saw the story playing out in a little bit different way — but the end result was always the same.
I was struck tonight by a line in one of Donald Miller’s recent books. He wrote, “Once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life and you can’t go back to being normal. You can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
I feel as though I have stepped into living “a good story” several times, only to retreat for one reason or another. But in each case, I’ve tasted what a life of meaning can feel like — and I can’t possibly want to live a “normal life,” no matter how much some people probably wish I would.
I value things which “normal” people don’t value. I’m oblivious to things which most “normal” people do value. I don’t want what they want. I don’t want their lives. I don’t want the meaningless lives which so many of them lead. I want to be great — to live a life of meaning, as I understand it.
I was around a couple of businessmen Thursday afternoon when it suddenly occurred to me that nothing about us was alike. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them. They like living a normal life and just surviving until it’s time to retire with a pile of money. If that’s who they are, that’s their business.
But it’s not who I am.
I’d like money. I’d like power. I’d like those things because they can facilitate changes I’d like to make in the world and they can make my life more comfortable for me and for my family. But the things which get me excited are much bigger and much longer term.
They might be focused on their 15-year-plan for retirement. I’m more interested in my 1,000-year-plan for changing the world.
I’m still ambivalent. I still often want to leave the world alone and let it fall apart on its own. I still want to run off and become a hermit with whoever would run away with me.
But I also need to be great. I also need to accept a calling which I’d rather not accept. I also want to live out a life of exciting meaning and love, along with someone with the depth and foresight to appreciate the calling and the “mission.”
God uses people who are flawed and weak, and he uses those who try to run from their calling. But if God ever uses me to do something great in the world, it will show he is a great comedian — one who laughs at our silly plans for our lives.