Early on in the week, Tara Hunt asked us if we “would sacrifice love for greatness”:
Do you have to sacrifice love for greatness? And, if so, what would be your choice?
(Disclosure: I was also at the Comfort Food Club dinner.) It reminded me that I wrote a very short post several years ago about the choices presented to us as women:
[…] In front of the fireplace, we discussed how today’s feminists have relatively little interest in [Simone de Beauvoir’s] work, and that certain women have rejected her because she chose not to have children.
The lack of interest is understandable — she belongs to a different time when the feminism battle was different.
However, the rejection seems to me a little uncalled for, even though I can see the basis for it. Today’s first-world woman has been given the choice of having a family, a career and a personal life. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that these choices have not always been present and that our rights were hard-fought, that I think women today tend to feel we must have all three. The fact of the matter is, we don’t. The idea behind choices is that we can choose, that we are no longer imprisoned behind society’s demands. Just because we have these choices available to us does not mean we have to take everything that we can.
This is where I agree with Tara: it’s difficult to pursue a love-focused life at the same time as a life that is purposeful — especially in the context of wanting to change the world.
Where I disagree with Tara, is that greatness is what history sees of you, and that’s where you may not have any choice in the matter. Such as in the case of poor Simone. It wasn’t lost on me that even if you’re an intelligent, independent, thinking woman of your time, you could well be painted into history as a supporting actress to an apparently greater man. Remember that quote tinged with misogyny: “Behind every great man …”. Lucky as I am to have had relationships that were built on love as much as on intellect, I’m well aware that if the man you’re with becomes known for major changes in history (say, someone like Sartre), it’s easy to forget the woman quite likely helped him shape his ideas. Therefore, women have had to carve our own path and often reject social norms to be acknowledged by history in the same light.
Almost 15 years ago, a teacher in philosophy gave our little group of student-thinkers a topic of discussion: what is greatness? It struck me then: like everything, “greatness” is relative. A world-changing innovation, like nuclear energy, may be the most amazing scientific discovery until your city is struck by an atomic bomb. I remembered saying cautiously, “I could say … my mother is great.” She was a teacher of physics and mathematics in South East Asia, no small feat for a woman in a developing country in the 1970s. She inspired her students, who wouldn’t have seen how she held our home together. My mother trod the fine line of the strong, intelligent woman where our culture and history could barely acknowledge her achievements.
Fast forward several years later, I volunteered in a group that helped students in the university gain access to free Unix accounts in order they could learn more hard core computing than what was taught in classes. A group leader and friend said to me one day in passing, “We teach what we know, and hopefully, those we teach will go on to teach others.” This was back sometime in 1998, and he was describing a positive feedback loop that results in network effect.
For some reason, that stuck with me. Greatness does not necessarily involve taking the world on. It is first about doing what you believe in, whether recognition or not is in order. Greatness comes much later, and greatness is something that is attributed to you and the impact of your actions, not something you can strive for. What one can do on the road to greatness is to have an ambition for change, but it is to first affect those in our direct sphere of influence. Changing the world does not require, well, changing the whole world at once. It requires persistence in changing those you can reach.
All that aside, I’m one of the lucky few that has been chosen by love, so I have never felt as if “love vs greatness” is a choice I have to make, or that I have a right to make. It’s a choice forced upon that those who love me: they take my energy, passion, ambition and my incessant activism for a better world as a part of me. The honest truth is: it’s not a sacrifice that I make, but it’s a sacrifice made by those who love me.