Fire on the Mountain
By Bobby Neal Winters
Now my widow she weeps by my grave
Tears flow free for her man she couldn't save
Shot down in cold blood by a gun that carried fame
All for a useless and no good worthless claim
--Marshall Tucker Band
The desire to be great ruins lives.
I’m not the best speller and that last sentences was anti-intuitive, so let me repeat it: The desire to be great ruins lives.
We are taught from the time we can understand that we are to aim for the stars, “You might not get there but you will go farther than if you aimed on a level with yourself.” I don’t want to argue against that as a means of building your self-confidence to try difficult things.
But we have to work on our sense of reality.
You are never going to be president of the United States. Seriously and especially if you are reading this you aren’t. Let’s do the math. You have to be 35 to be president. Say you are one of those rare folks who is vigorously healthy until you are 80. That gives you 45 years. There will be at most 12 presidents in that time interval. We could say there are 300 million others, but according to Lawrence Lessig, author of Lester Land, there are only about 144 thousand who, because of financial considerations, can even think of running. So you have 12 chances out of 144 thousand. That is a 0.00008 probability of being elected.
That works out to 1 chance in 12 thousand. The odds of dying by firearms is about 1 in 6000. So the average person is twice as likely to die from a bullet than even a rich person is of being elected president.
And if you aren’t rich, your probability is zero.
What is driving me to write this?
It is about a type of personality that I’ve seen on campus. It’s among the students; it’s among the faculty.
Those of you who remember the television program Cheer might remember Diane Chambers. She was a professional student. She had majored in everything. She was going to be a great actress, a great poet, etc. Being good at anything--and certainly being a good waitress--wasn’t enough.
As a result, she’s never stuck with anything; she never became anything.
I think that we should stop saying to aim for the stars. I think there is a better way to phrase what is really the same sentiment: If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain. Or, as Confucius said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Okay, I’ve never read Confucius, but I’ve played a lot of Civilization.) It’s not we who are great, it is the task isn’t as great as we think if done in small pieces, often by many hands over time.
This shields us from the poisonous idea that we are great or can be great or should be great. It removes that distracting sugar bait of greatness and allows us to pursue a better goal: To be good.
There are two kinds of truth. There are the truths that are true whether we believe them or not: If a closed population does not maintain a 2.1 average birthrate, it will disappear in time. Then there are things that if you believe and act on, will become true: Moving a mountain or building a cathedral would be examples of this.
If you do something over and over, you will get better at it. If you walk 40 minutes a day, you will be healthier than if you didn’t. If you practice a language 45 minutes a day, you will learn some of it. You won’t be a great athlete or a world renown linguist.
But you will better yourself and, perhaps, be a benefit to others. That’s not to be sneezed at.