As the new year begins, I find myself reflecting on one of the frequent conversations I have had in the past year: the draw of a narcissistic greatness that seems to be taking an increasing hold on the world.
In a previous post I had put up several pictures evidencing the narcissistic trajectory that our modern culture seems to be on. The influence has become strong and images everywhere are popping up encouraging you to be the amazing, extraordinary, over-achieving, super-human that you were meant to be. The message that “it is all about you” and that “you are special” seems to be turning into the mantra of 21st century Western Civilization.
Aside from the illusion of being an extraordinary super-human (which sends so many people into either an arrogant, boastful way of life or a super-depressed way of life if they believe they’re failures at everything) there is an element of greatness that exists within everyone. Just by virtue of being humans and the capabilities of the human mind there is the possibility for anyone to be great in some way. Talents and giftings are as unique as personalities on this planet.
In Genesis 2 it is written that “it is not good for man to be alone”. Which I think, if dwelt upon at length, would lead one to believe that if a man was truly alone, he would die. The basics of life–food, clothing, and shelter–are only made possible through a collective effort of individuals. In our modern world filled with privilege, potential, and possibility, thanks to the monumental advances of human technology, it seems that everywhere people are vying for a piece of greatness. We want to make a name for ourselves and leave a legacy. Hell, who wouldn’t want to be known as legendary in some way, right?
But I’m more convinced than ever that individual “greatness” and being “a legend” are impossible alone and that one man’s greatness is but an expression of the greatness within all of humanity. One of the more influential books that I read over the last year was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. He showed the world that no one goes from nothing to greatness by mere willpower. Various circumstances that are out of their control, being in the right place at the right time, and ultimately others are what make the difference.
It is often taken for granted that we as individual humans are capable of producing various things and doing various activities completely on our own, even from scratch. Greatness, in fact, is sometimes defined by a single person’s self-contained achievement. But how much of what we do or accomplish in life is truly self-contained or “on our own”? I so far have failed to come up with anything that an individual is capable of doing or accomplishing completely on their own.
So my theory is this: no one is more special than anyone else. We’re all ordinary people with the capability of producing wondrous things, unless you are Jesus (and that’s only if you believe he was God, otherwise not even he was more special than anyone else). To put this theory to the test let us experiment with this particular video that I have enjoyed much from YouTube:
[av_video src=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf6LD2B_kDQ’ format=’4-3′ width=’16’ height=’9′]
That a talented and skilled young artist can write, edit, and produce such an awesome music video all on her own and gain millions of views on YouTube seems like a truly great achievement indeed. Without a doubt countless hours of practicing, studying, musical exercise, and even failures have gone into nurturing the talents and gifts possessed by this particular artist. One is right to say she has excelled and found greatness in what she has worked for.
But the question we’d like to answer is whether she is more special than others? Was it completely on her own that she achieved what she has?
I am at once noticing that she plays melodic tones, rhythms, and progressions that can be attributed to various music genres developed by various musicians over the last few decades. Those rhythms and progressions themselves can be attributed to various scale modes which have been developed over many centuries.
But let’s take a closer look at the instrument. The modern form of the violin was developed by Italians in the early 16th century. The length and width of the strings had to be made just right to produce just the right sound. The shape and the sound holes also had to be just right to create just the right sound. Since that time from the Baroque period to the modern form the violin underwent countless modifications in fingerboard lengths, fret distances, and string tensions. But even the violin wasn’t created out of nothing by some clever Italian inventor. The violin was only made possible due to the work of previous developers of the lira that was used in the Byzantine Empire along with other bowed and string instruments which aren’t even in use anymore. The bow itself may have originated somewhere in Asia during the 10th century. What about the lira of the developed in the Byzantine Empire? Where did that come from? So far, the lyres and harps of Ur are considered to be the oldest surviving stringed instruments and they are over 4,500 years old.
Did someone living in Ur sit down and decide he needed to cut a certain shape of wood to which he could tie metal strings to create musical sounds? Where did the makers of the lyres get their ideas from? Going back earlier we find Jubal listed in the Genesis record as “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” (Genesis 4:21). He was six generations the descendant of Adam. Archeologists have uncovered flutes made out of animal bones that apparently date to 40,000 years ago. (Of course whether instruments have been in development for that long is a question for debate as I can’t see how humans were sophisticated enough to create something like the flute 40,000 years ago and then stall in the development of musical instruments for the next 35,000 years until it took off again to develop a plethora of musical instruments in a matter of a few thousand years.) Taking Jubal as the inventor of musical instruments, maybe we could stop there. Or can we? Where did Jubal get his ideas from? Surely humans were humming and whistling long before there were instruments. Not to mention the mimicking of bird songs. It seems however you trace musical sound you find it ultimately rooted in nature itself. The nature of birds and the nature of humans are endowed with the ability to produce musical sound. Adam and Eve, as Jubal’s ancestral parents, would also have played a very important role.
So we go from the first parents, Adam and Eve, to this young artist’s masterful performance on the violin and see the profound oneness between them. Countless hours of discovery of countless individuals over thousands of years went into the development of what we know today as the sound of the violin. A simple, but highly complex thing!
To make this experiment more interesting, let’s remove the element of time and draw ourselves up a rough sketch of the the journey of the modern violin. In a world without time, we would see our first parents learning to hum and whistle after the manner of the birds in the trees and exploring melody and rhythm. Later they would come across some hollow bones and accidentally create a pleasant sound as they blew through them when all they were intending to do was clean them out to make a new tool. They would then discover that a small hole opening up and closing could change the pleasant sound into another pleasant tone. The flute would be created. Later they would find out inadvertently that a tight string would produce a pleasant sound if plucked while trying build bows to shoot arrows with. They would draw from their experiences with the flute and experiment with string sounds. Later they would learn wood crafting and everything necessary for that. They would then experiment with finger boards and different types of strings and put together the first stringed instrument. Next, they would discover resonance and reverberation and create drums. Then they would realize they could combine the two and build resonating hollow shapes with strings over them. The lyre and the harp would be born. Next, after discovering how to manipulate metals anyway they wanted, Eve would begin to experiment with fret boards and metal strings. One day she stumbles across the sound that a lock of horse hair rubbing against her newly built stringed lyre makes. The lira and bow are born. Through further developments and extensive testing of wood types, string spacings, string action, tuning, basic scales and modes, the lyre would turn into a highly advanced form played by propping it up against the neck and chin and sweeping a bow (now also refined and advanced) across the strings at perfected angles and so create the beautiful sound of the violin. But the picture isn’t complete because she needs to appear on YouTube in front of millions of individuals across the world, and to do this we need to take into account Adam and Eve’s engineering from math, electricity, light bulbs, computer chips, and software technology to get to the HD cameras and video editing platforms used to create the video, not to mention the internet and YouTube. But even that isn’t a complete picture. Adam and Eve would then need to develop airplanes, lightning fast communication technology, vehicles, affordable computers, vast networks of business and trade, international politics and agreements, and even social networking in order to get computers and the internet into the hands of common men, women, and children around the world so that they can all access her video and share it with their friends. If all that were achieved by one person maybe then we would label them “great”. But immediately a problem arises. Where did Adam and Eve come from? If from God, then we have the answer to who truly holds the greatness of all things produced by humans. If they come only from dirt, then I suppose we owe all of our “greatness” to the dirt we walk on and sweep into the garbage everyday. In that case, “greatness” and “glory” are meaningless tokens of that which only exist in our heads. It seems to me, whether God is acknowledged or not, that humanity still tends to live according to the former as not too many people seem to be living according to the latter. This gives me hope for humanity.
Origins aside, I think it can be seen clearly, with the element of time out of the way, that we are all one and one man’s or one woman’s greatness is an intricate network of greatness that spans the history of humanity. Sometimes you will find individuals “in the lime light” attributing their “greatness” to the help and support of others as this talent young violinist does. And how true it is that none of us can even live without each other. Leo Tolstoy saw this and sought to elaborate on it in his book called Life. He recognized that life is one and runs through all of us, and that when even one human falls we all are adversely affected by it.
To be truly great is to recognize that you are no more special than anyone else and that alone, you can do nothing.
“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5