What Is True Greatness?
Howard W. Hunter 1987
Many Latter-day Saints are happy and enjoying the opportunities life offers. Yet I am concerned that some among us are unhappy. Some of us feel that we are falling short of our expected ideals. I have particular concern for those who have lived righteously but think—because they haven’t achieved in the world or in the Church what others have achieved—that they have failed. Each of us desires to achieve a measure of greatness in this life. And why shouldn’t we? As someone once noted, there is within each of us a giant struggling with celestial homesickness. (See Heb. 11:13–16; D&C 45:11–14.)
Realizing who we are and what we may become assures us that with God nothing is really impossible. From the time we learn that Jesus wants us for a Sunbeam through the time we learn more fully the basic principles of the gospel, we are taught to strive for perfection. It is not new to us, then, to talk of the importance of achievement. The difficulty arises when inflated expectations of the world alter the definition of greatness.
What is true greatness? What is it that makes a person great?
We live in a world that seems to worship its own kind of greatness and to produce its own kind of heroes. A recent survey of young people ages eighteen through twenty-four revealed that today’s youth prefer the “strong, go-it-alone, conquer-against-all-odds” individuals and that they clearly seek to pattern their lives after the glamorous and “boundlessly rich.” During the 1950s, heroes included Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, President Harry Truman, Queen Elizabeth, and Helen Keller—the blind and deaf writer-lecturer. These were figures who either helped shape history or were noted for their inspiring lives. Today, many of the top ten heroes are movie stars and other entertainers, which suggests something of a shift in our attitudes. (See U. S. News & World Report, 22 Apr. 1985, pp. 44–48.)
It’s true that most of the world’s heroes don’t last very long in the public mind; but, nevertheless, there is never a lack of champions and great achievers. We hear almost daily of athletes breaking records; scientists inventing marvelous new devices, machines, and processes; and doctors saving lives in new ways. We are constantly being exposed to exceptionally gifted musicians and entertainers and to unusually talented artists, architects, and builders. Magazines, billboards, and television commercials bombard us with pictures of individuals with perfect teeth and flawless features, wearing stylish clothes and doing whatever it is that “successful” people do.
Because we are being constantly exposed to the world’s definition of greatness, it is understandable that we might make comparisons between what we are and what others are—or seem to be—and also between what we have and what others have. Although it is true that making comparisons can be beneficial and may motivate us to accomplish much good and to improve our lives, we often allow unfair and improper comparisons to destroy our happiness when they cause us to feel unfulfilled or inadequate or unsuccessful. Sometimes, because of these feelings, we are led into error and dwell on our failures while ignoring aspects of our lives that may contain elements of true greatness.
In 1905, President Joseph F. Smith made this most profound statement about true greatness:
“Those things which we call extraordinary, remarkable, or unusual may make history, but they do not make real life.
“After all, to do well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind, is the truest greatness. To be a successful father or a successful mother is greater than to be a successful general or a successful statesman.” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 Dec. 1905, p. 752.)
This statement raises a query: What are the things God has ordained to be “the common lot of all mankind”? Surely they include the things that must be done in order to be a good father or a good mother, a good son or a good daughter, a good student or a good roommate or a good neighbor.
Pablo Casals, the great cellist, spent the morning on the day he died—at the age of ninety-five—practicing scales on his cello. Giving consistent effort in the little things in day-to-day life leads to true greatness. Specifically, it is the thousands of little deeds and tasks of service and sacrifice that constitute the giving, or losing, of one’s life for others and for the Lord. They include gaining a knowledge of our Father in Heaven and the gospel. They also include bringing others into the faith and fellowship of his kingdom. These things do not usually receive the attention or the adulation of the world.
Joseph Smith is not generally remembered as a general, mayor, architect, editor, or presidential candidate. We remember him as the prophet of the Restoration, a man committed to the love of God and the furthering of His work. The Prophet Joseph was an everyday Christian. He was concerned about the small things, the daily tasks of service and caring for others. As a thirteen-year-old boy, Lyman O. Littlefield accompanied the camp of Zion, which went up to Missouri. He later narrated this incident of a small yet personally significant act of service in the life of the Prophet:
“The journey was extremely toilsome for all, and the physical suffering, coupled with the knowledge of the persecutions endured by our brethren whom we were traveling to succor, caused me to lapse one day into a state of melancholy. As the camp was making ready to depart I sat tired and brooding by the roadside. The Prophet was the busiest man of the camp; and yet when he saw me, he turned from the great press of other duties to say a word of comfort to a child. Placing his hand upon my head, he said, ‘Is there no place for you, my boy? If not, we must make one.’ This circumstance made an impression upon my mind which long lapse of time and cares of riper years have not effaced.” (In George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986, p. 344.)
On another occasion, when Governor Carlin of Illinois sent Sheriff Thomas King of Adams County and several others as a posse to apprehend the Prophet and deliver him to the emissaries of Governor Boggs of Missouri, Sheriff King became deathly ill. At Nauvoo the Prophet took the sheriff to his home and nursed him like a brother for four days. (Ibid., p. 372.) Small, kind, and yet significant acts of service were not occasional for the Prophet.
Writing about the opening of the store in Nauvoo, Elder George Q. Cannon recorded:
“The Prophet himself did not hesitate to engage in mercantile and industrial pursuits; the gospel which he preached was one of temporal salvation as well as spiritual exaltation; and he was willing to perform his share of the practical labor. This he did with no thought of personal gain.” (Ibid., p. 385.)
And in a letter, the Prophet wrote:
“The store has been filled to overflowing and I have stood behind the counter all day, distributing goods as steadily as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their Christmas and New Year’s dinners for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, etc.; and to please myself also, for I love to wait upon the Saints and to be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.” (Ibid., p. 386.)