One of the characters in ABC’s Scandal, Cyrus, once said in one episode, “Some people are not meant to be happy. They are meant to be great.” It’s not the first time I had heard something alluding that happiness and greatness are mutually exclusive. Oftentimes, I wonder if it is true. When we think of heroes, creators, legendary people, one can only imagine the amount of personal sacrifice it takes to truly do something extraordinary. And I have often wondered if part of this personal sacrifice is happiness.
I think that people who do the greatest things on earth often have to face the greatest tribulations. The road to greatness seems like a road filled with disappointments and anguish and more failures than victories. And I don’t think many people are willing to travel that road. It is understandable; our humanity is often one that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. And greatness, it seems to me, would involve being able to endure great pains. Pains that may leave the human spirit broken, maybe damaged; maybe pains that accept that happiness is not the sole purpose of one’s life.
If you contemplate some of the greatest people in history, from artists to writers to acclaimed political leaders, many underwent severe suffering, including mental illnesses that perhaps made experiencing happiness another struggle of its own. But the point is that they still overcame their suffering and maybe gave up personal happiness because of the calling they felt to do something great, something that would forever leave their mark in the history books. The truth is that many have passed through this earth and many will pass, having done great things, but not great enough to be remembered and their names will not be accounted for in the history books.
Sometimes I think that’s what I am most afraid of in life – being forgotten at the end of mine. I can without a doubt say that I do believe that I make a difference to some people’s lives. But will I ever do something really great? And if I do, what will I have to sacrifice? As someone who values both happiness and greatness, I am often plagued with the thought that I would have to ultimately sacrifice personal happiness like many have. And when it’s all said and done, I don’t know which is better. If you had a choice between happiness and greatness, and it was mutually exclusive, what would you choose?
My dad told me something very important when I was young. He said, “Always be happy, no matter what. And if you want to be happy, here’s how: be happy.” But he also taught me something I’ve never been able to shake off given our perspective as people of faith. He said, “Remember that on this earth, we cannot be completely happy. Only in heaven, do we experience total happiness.” It would seem like a contradictory message but I understand that he always wanted us to be as happy as possible while keeping in mind that this earth is not a place to look for total fulfillment or happiness.
Sometimes I wonder about my dad too. He is a brilliant man, he is still the most brilliant man I know and I don’t say that just because he’s my dad. Anyone who has a conversation with him knows that he is a man of great intellect. And sometimes I wonder if he chose happiness and a simple life over greatness. And when I think about him, I wonder how many of us make that decision.
My mum, however, who is simply the best human being I know on this planet has always encouraged me to be great. Like many parents, I think she already believes I am. One time during a difficult period in my life, she told me, “There is no path to greatness without great suffering. You must be willing to endure this and more if you’re going to do anything you’re destined to do.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be great, like George Orwell great or Maya Angelou great or Stuart Hall great, but it sure as hell has been wonderful to have people around me who think I could be.
Still, I don’t know what to make of this choice that maybe we all have to make between greatness and happiness; choices that we aren’t aware that we make every day. But I do know, for right now, if there are odds I would like to defy, it is to be both happy and great. Maybe both words need to be redefined and maybe they needn’t be so mutually exclusive. Maybe if we believe that we are doing exactly what we are meant to be doing in our time on earth, that’s how we achieve both happiness and greatness. Maybe you and I, through our sufferings and pains on this earth, and despite them all, and through them all, and whether one person or one billion people remember us at the end of our lives, can lead a life that is both happy and great.