Thoughts on Defining “Greatness”

While Donald Trump apparently has trouble with words containing more than two syllables, it is the small words that often trouble me … the words we use every day and have for as long as we can remember.  Perhaps it is that we use them so much that we take them for granted and do not really think much about them.  I don’t know … I am not an etymologist.  The word I am pondering today … well, let me fill you in on a bit of background first …

Friday evening, a friend (Trump supporter) made a post about what a great day it was (inauguration) and how excited she was, “looking forward to becoming a great nation again”.  Well, I’ve tried to just ignore those things, scroll on by, and think about more pleasant thoughts, like toothaches and torture.  But, catch me in just the right mood and the tongue, or in this case the fingers, just let loose.  So, my response was “The third darkest day for the nation in my lifetime, after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.” To which, of course, I received a few boorish comments about making America great again.  I’ve heard that expression so much in the past 18 months that I don’t even ponder it, or if I do, my thoughts are “what the hell was wrong with it to begin with?”  But that evening, already stressed, I typed only one other thought, “I guess it depends on how you define ‘great’”.  And that is the thing that got my rusty wheels turning.

How do we define the word ‘great’? Do we all think of it the same way?  Is it possible that republicans think ‘great’ means one thing, while democrats think it means something else altogether?  Or is it, perhaps, a relative term:  to a starving man, a piece of stale bread might be ‘great’, whereas to a wealthy person it would be a thing of disgust? Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of the word:

  • notably large in size
  • of a kind characterized by relative largeness —used in plant and animal names
  • large in number or measure
  • remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness
  • full of emotion
  • chief or preeminent over others —often used in titles
  • long continued
  • more remote in a family relationship by a single generation than a specified relative
  • markedly superior in character or quality
  • remarkably skilled
  • marked by enthusiasm

Well, that certainly clarified things.  However, knowing how Trump thinks, I believe it is safe to assume that he meant one, or perhaps all, of the three I have highlighted.  But … even there, there is room for interpretation. There are those who believe that Trump himself is great, as defined by all three of those, whereas I and many others see him as the antithesis to all three.

One thing that can be said about society, and life in general, is that it is dynamic, never-changing, never static.  In the 1800s, for example, in this country we had slaves picking cotton and working for no pay and very little support from their ‘masters’.  Women wore bustles, did not work outside the home, tittered, and giggled, and their sole focus was attracting and pleasing men.  Jobs were mostly in agriculture, and things like television, airplanes and the internet were unheard of.  Compared to the 21st century, it was an entirely different world.  Was life ‘great’ back then?  It depended on who you were.  If you were a slave, probably not so much, but if you were a railroad baron or a plantation owner, you probably thought it was pretty great. But one thing is certain … enough people saw room for improvement that the world did evolve, innovations to make life easier were invented, and as travel became more widespread, so did ideas.  Ideas like equality, enhanced education, cultural assimilation, tolerance, etc.

Fast forward to today.  Is life great?  Until recently, my answer would have been that it is pretty darned good, but still had some ways to go.  We came a long way from the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, and an even longer way from the slavery of the 19th century.  We came a long way in understanding other people, cultures and ideas, such as LGBT, African-Americans, Muslims and more, but still, we have some preconceived notions, some prejudices that we yet needed to work on. Today, however, my answer is different.

Today, we are stepping back from the best parts of what our nation was a year ago.  We are stepping back and it would seem that many wish to step back even farther.  It must be the case that some see a specific period in time as the snapshot of greatness in our nation.  Perhaps it was, as some have suggested, the period immediately following World War II, the 1950s, when people were thankful to have their husbands, sons and brothers back from the war, new innovations were common and most could afford at least a television and a washing machine.

Similarly, we can look back on our own lives and see a snapshot in time as being ‘great’.  What is that moment for you?  But … and this is key … would you really want to go back there forever?  It’s a moot point, as we cannot turn the clocks back, but the point I’m making is that as life evolves, morphs into something different than it was 50, 100, 200 years ago, some things are seen as improvement, some less so.  So, we continually strive to fix the “less so” things, but we do not, as I have often said, “throw out the baby with the bathwater” … we build on those things that are already good.  We do not backstep into a past that can never again be.

Those who wish to backtrack on the fight to clean up our environment, on acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers, on LGBT rights … doing so will NOT make America any more great than it already is, but will reduce its greatness, for those are the things that make us a country with hearts, with souls, and with consciences.  In my book, humanitarianism is the foundation of a great nation.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Defining “Greatness”

  1. How great is a country that doesn’t provide healthcare, superior education opportunities, and protects the rights of all citizens? The last several years *were* the best for our society that I could pinpoint over my lifetime and looking back a bit beyond that. Not anymore.

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  2. These past few days have been trying as the BS executive orders flow. As for being great, we know that Trump likes to indicate that he is ‘large in size’, but his behavior indicates someone that is compensating for a lack of size. My theory is that he only speaks in words of two syllables or less because he can only catch so much breath when he pulls his head out of his ass to speak.

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  3. Every time someone talks about “making a country great again” I flinch. I don’t think anything good has come out of statements like this ever. Because every single politician who used that phrase meant “making great in expense of other nations”. It is never just “great”, it is always “greater than”. Shudder. – But then I already get an uneasy feeling when people talk about being “proud of their country” in too loud a voice. Maybe it is because of being Austrian (insert all our troublesome past here), but pride is not something I easily associate with countries. I love my country, and am happy if people tell me they like Austrian landscape or cooking/baking or music, but I get very suspicious if too much pride gets involved. Maybe I do feel a little pride when Austrian skiers win a World Cup (or my young favourite Austrian tennis player reaches the top ten), but mostly pride is not an emotion I associate with my country.
    But let’s play the game – what would be things I would be proud of in a country? I guess I could be proud of a country that embraces diversity. A country that has different cultures living beside each other peacefully, complementing each other. A country that respects every man and women for what they are: humans, no matter their racial or cultural or religious background. … Sorry for getting all idealistic again … it is Wednesday morning, maybe I am not fully awake yet. … But still we dream…

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    • Your reasons for taking pride in a country are exactly mine! Humanitarian issues … the things we do for others, not the stupid things that have no meaning in the long run. My pride in country has always been based on the words written on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” When we stopped acting according to those values, my pride in country began to diminish.

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  4. As you know, I tend to look back and in some respects I do think things were better “then.” But those things involved a greater awareness of others, acceptance of responsibility, and a deeper sense of duty. We have lost a great deal in our frantic pursuit of material progress, but I would never advocate turning the clock back — which is what the trumpet seems intent to do and which many think would be a good thing.
    As far as greatness is concerned, I have blogged about this in defense of “great books,” but I do not think greatness can be defined: we just know it when we see it. I honestly don’t see it much these days and I certainly don’t expect this President to restore what I would accept as greatness!

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  5. Hear Hear Jill. I don’t see Greatness returning to the US.as long as there are those who want to retreat to the day of Strange Fruit on the trees. Placing a man with links to the KKK in a position of power in the administration doesn’t fill me full of confidence that those think should be a banned organisation won’t be coming back to prominence on the shirt tails of you new president. I’m sorry I can’t grant the office the capital letter it would deserve under most other holders.
    Cwtch mawr xxx

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    • I fully agree, David. And you will notice that I do not refer to him as I always did President Obama … just cannot give him that level of respect, so until or unless he earns it, on my blog he is simply Trump. Hugs, my friend!

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