It is easy to be great, but hard to be good.
My grandfather, Martin Glassman, passed away last week at the age of 89. He was born in Brooklyn to parents who immigrated from Eastern Europe, and was raised in the Bronx. When he was a child he suffered from a seizure disorder that impaired his intelligence. His parents did not treat him well, so at 17 he enlisted to fight in the Korean War. When he returned he moved to New Haven, Conn. In his career as a postal worker, he was bullied for being Jewish and not intellectually advanced. As a result he was only promoted one time in his whole career. Nothing was given to him in his life, but he never complained.
There is a story by Isaac Loeb Peretz called Bontche Schweig, or “Bontche the Silent,” about a man who lived in a shtetl and never kvetched, or griped. He had an oppressive life of poverty and tragedy. When he died, he went to heaven, and was shocked. How could he, the simple Bontche, receive such an honor? He must have been confused for a great Rabbi who looked similarly. But all uncertainty was cleared up when the defending angel took the stand and talked about Bontche Schweig and his life! How could an Angel in heaven be impressed with some ordinary man in a shtetl? Then, even more amazing, when the prosecuting angel took the stand, he said of Bontche “he was always silent — and now I too will be silent.” No word was spoken against him.
Since Bontche was now in heaven he was permitted to ask for anything in the whole world. He just requested a hot roll for breakfast every morning.
In Judaism, it is commanded that we walk into a room with a smile, or else we deteriorate the mood of those around us. My grandfather was always happy. He never was never angered and always sweet. He did what he was told and was happy with what he got. When my aunt was growing up, she would give him all the food she didn’t like, and take the food from him which she did. Despite his preferences he would give his food: Either way he would be happy, and it was more important that she ate what she enjoyed.
Harvard students are pushed to be the best, to be ambitious, and to create a legacy. Whether we aspire to wealth, prodigious intellectual and artistic contributions, or transformative change in our community, we seek to be great. But greatness is a form of pride; seeking it is idolatry. I have been ambitious, greedy, and vain. I have wondered how I can have a legacy that surpasses time, so one day someone may remember my name. But, as with Ozymandias, even the most sublime statues will one day crumble. We will probably be remembered for no longer than 75 years after our deaths, and it won’t be too long after that until someone utters our name for the last time. Even the greatest men, like Caesar or Shakespeare, will be forgotten.
We have to aspire first and foremost to be good. A legacy is ultimately meaningless. We need only to focus on being as kind, grateful, and humble as we can in our own lives. Social justice does not matter without individual justice. It is easy to shout about how other people need to change and other people need to do things, but the only way we can actually effectuate change is through embodying it ourselves. Through doing good and modeling virtue for others we can start to create a more just society.
It is undeniable that ambition has led to many important achievements such as medical advances, agricultural abundance, and political stability. Insofar as we are capable, we should pursue that which is beyond ourselves that can have such positive ramifications. However, all of these are fruitless without a simultaneous and preceding good. Evil and goodness start with the individual, hate and love start with the individual. Without first pursuing individual virtue, all global accomplishments are inevitably stained. Humility does not mean thinking we are worthless, it means believing that we are not entitled to anything and that while we may be greater than others, we are rarely better than them.
Yet being good is extremely hard. It requires us to sacrifice our ego, to admit that there is someone greater than us, and to moderate our greatest passions so they do not consume our sensibilities. Finding true and simple satisfaction is rarer than indulging in one’s skills to be greater than another. We want in so many ways a legacy, but we should much rather prefer a good life. I have much more “potential” than my grandfather did, but I can only hope that I’ll be half the man he was.
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.
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