Truly great people have appropriate expectations for the rest of us. Darwin did not expect every amateur who assisted his inquiry to dedicate his or her life to science. Socrates did not expect every conversation partner to drop his occupation and become a full-time philosopher. Jesus did not expect all of his followers to commit to the high standard for apostles of the kingdom of God. John Muir was a mountaineer, but he did not expect that of everyone, though he did want everyone to taste wilderness glory. Bach wrote music for beginners. Schweitzer and Addams helped others pursue the lives of their own choosing. Pitirim Sorokin did not expect everyone to be a creative genius of altruistic love.
Sorokin believed that if ordinary people increase their level of altruism by 50%, that will be enough, given the necessary leadership, to transform our world. He gave the example of American good neighbors from the mid-20th century; they were generally persons of faith who cared for neighbors in need and volunteered with groups to serve the greater good.
Part of the difference between culture-heroes and the rest of us has to do with the fact that the world-historical greats had multiple gifts at high levels. I believe that everyone is gifted—everyone has at least one gift—but that gift might not be enough to support a world-class contribution to civilization.
But aside from differences in giftedness, there is another difference that is commonly overlooked. People are called to different levels of dedication. Whether we choose the highest standards of conduct or something more modest, we all have the same destiny. Given a vision of that destiny, the assurance would dawn that, no matter how great the transformation to be accomplished, attainment is not in doubt; we simply need to keep pace with the program, making and carrying out the daily decisions, following divine guidance. Our destiny is to be a full, mature, unified, complete person. Jesus invites us all: “Be you perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The quest for perfection gets a bad reputation because people confuse it with perfectionism, which is narrow, compulsive, and counterproductive. Perfectionism obsesses about secondary things, while the quest for perfection goes for primary things—relationships and supreme values. But even those who choose the path of the hero need a balanced and sustainable heroism. Whether we choose to live up to the highest ideals or follow a more conventional social line, we all need to trust the natural and gradual process of growth toward our common destiny.
Natural living does not try to accelerate growth artificially. Most of the time, growth is gradual, as agricultural metaphors indicate. The Chinese philosopher Mencius called for a mean between extremes and satirized misguided self-cultivation with a story of a farmer who wanted to help rice grow by pulling on the sprouts.
You must work at [rightness] and never let it out of your mind. At the same time, while you must never let it out of your mind, you must not forcibly help it grow either. You must not be like the man from Sung. There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realizing what he had done. “I am worn out today,” said he to his family. “I have been helping the rice plants to grow.” His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were, all shrivelled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow. There are some who leave the plants unattended, thinking that nothing they can do will be of any use. They are the people who do not even bother to weed. There are others who help the plants grow. They are the people who pull at them. Not only do they fail to help them but they do the plants positive harm. (Mencius [trans. D.C. Lau, Penguin 1970] 2B2)
To weed means uprooting a bad habit; and it means continuing to make course corrections as we go. To pull on the plants means compulsively examining our failures and weaknesses; it means trying artificially to build character through a regime of behavioral self-control. Pulling on the plants is so focused on self as to miss the faith, trust, patience, and love that nourish genuine character growth.
If we choose more conventional social norms rather than sustainable heroism, we still need to keep growing; we cannot cease efforts to grow and just coast and hold on to a certain level of attainment. We either go forward or backward; and the next segment of either path may require a steep climb.
How do you combine wholeheartedness in becoming like God with a relaxed and peaceful trust in the pace of your growth?
The 1940 photo of Polish tobacco growers in Connecticut comes from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/88/Jack_Delano%2C_Tobacco_famers_near_Windsor_Locks%2C_Conn.%2C_1940.jpg/88px-Jack_Delano%2C_Tobacco_famers_near_Windsor_Locks%2C_Conn.%2C_1940.jpg