“If I don’t make a lot of noise and toot my own horn, I’ll get passed over. I’ll miss out.”
It’s tempting to think that sometimes.
But aren’t we usually more impressed by those who let their actions speak…without making a big fuss?
In funeral elegies, you never hear anyone say: “He always talked about how great he was!”
Baltasar Gracian gave this advice:
“Make the least ado about your greatest gifts. Be content to act, and leave the talking to others.”
And Mark Twain said:
“Noise doesn’t count. If it did, you’d have to believe the hen layed an asteroid instead of an egg!”
Gracian is suggesting: “Let your life do the talking. Put your life and actions out there and let them speak for themselves.”
Which raises the question: “What is my life saying?”
One of the most hopeful lines I’ve read recently comes from Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore:
“My world that flourishes carries my worlds that have failed.”
Failure is human. It’s a part of every life, without exception. Failure doesn’t disqualify us; if it did, everyone would be disqualified.
The question is how to carry our failure, setbacks, disappointments.
I know from bitter experience: failure is too heavy to carry by itself. It’s too heavy if we carry it only by the handle of resentment, or denial, or guilt, or anger, or feeling disqualified.
Trying to carry failure by these handles could crush us.
But there is another handle we can use to carry—and even benefit from—failure. It’s the handle of flourishing life.
Imagine that you’re down, depressed, or just bored. Suddenly you get a surprise visit from your best friend! Or a loved child or grandchild walks into your house!
The effect is electric. Everything is different. It’s like a resurrection.
We’ll never be successful either fixing all our failures or denying them. We’ll never outgrow failure.
Instead: the more the failure, the more we go for joy, for compassion and forgiveness, for thoughtfulness, for courage, for aliveness—for the things that make our world flourish…not in spite of failures, but with an assist from our failures.
This paradox is captured well in a quote from the book, Life That Loves To Happen…No Matter What Happens by Landon Saunders. He comments on the words from Tagore:
“The surprising paradox is that only by reaching down into our ‘worlds that failed’—down to where Soul meets Life—are we able to find our ‘world that flourishes’ and reach up to where joy meets the present.”
Have you ever met someone who inspired you to want to be a good or even a great human being? Someone who maybe changed the way you thought about greatness?
In 1961, when Pat Conroy (author of The Great Santini and other novels) was 17, he met such a man: William E. Dufford, the principal of Beaufort High School in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Bill Dufford gave young Pat a job as groundskeeper the summer before his senior year. When the principal took him to lunch, Pat saw the way Dufford moved from table to table, interacting with all kinds of people in the town.
“He made friendliness an art form,” Conroy would say many years later when he was speaking at an event to honor Dufford. “He knew everyone by their first name.”
Conroy spoke about what he saw in Bill Dufford: a man who moved with ease and confidence through his day; a man who was passionate and articulate; a man who had high ideals and yet was enjoyable to be with.
And then, recalling his 17-year-old self, Conroy said:
“I decided I would become the kind of man that Bill Dufford was born to be. I wanted to be the type of man that a whole town could respect and honor and fall in love with—the way Beaufort did when Bill Dufford came to town to teach and shape and turn its children into the best citizens they could be.”
There are many ways to define greatness. Here is one: “To aspire to be the kind of person that others could respect and honor and enjoy being with.”
Or, as Mark Twain put it:
“Live so that even the undertaker will be sorry to see you go.”
“If life is a question, would your answer be Yes or No?”
Many years ago, Esquire magazine posed this question to a number of thinkers.
The playwright Samuel Beckett responded:
“My answer is no. Life is awful. Grimace and bear it.”
The writer Isaac Bashevis Singer responded:
“My answer is yes. Life is God’s novel. Help him write it.”
And then there’s this; the poet Wallace Stevens wrote:
“Under every No lies a passion for Yes that has never been broken.”
In spite of all the tragedies and problems and failures and heartaches in the world, it just may be that it all boils down to this: am I living my life as a Yes or as a No?