Pursuing greatness

I’ve always felt I was destined for some great achievement, what I don’t know. — Gen. George S. Patton, from the film Patton

Panama-canalFerdinand de Lesseps was a man who felt destined to accomplish great things. He was a visionary, a charismatic idealist whose unwavering self-confidence inspired those around him. When his friend, Said Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt, approached him in the mid-1850’s looking for a grand project behind which to unite his country, de Lesseps proposed building a canal through the Isthmus of Suez, an achievement that would make Egypt the gateway between Europe and Asia.

Pasha was enthusiastic and granted de Lesseps, a Frenchman, the exclusive concession to build the canal. De Lesseps went to work immediately, forming his Suez Canal Company (Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez) and selling financial shares in the project to thousands of French investors large and small. He would build a sea level canal, unrestricted by locks or contrivances of any sort. De Lesseps hired the brightest French engineers to design and manage the project, and when the canal was finally opened in 1869, Ferdinand de Lesseps returned to France a national hero.

De Lesseps had just turned 64 and was not the sort to rest on his laurels. He began looking for a second act and found it, ten years later, in Central America, a place where he hoped to repeat his previous success by excavating a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, thus joining the Atlantic and the Pacific. De Lesseps’ Panama Canal would be modeled on what he had done at Suez — it would be a sea level canal without artificial locks. Simplicity and elegance demanded it be so.

De Lesseps was incapable of self-doubt and confident that no problem existed which could not be solved by human ingenuity. It was the beginning of the industrial age; everywhere nature was yielding up its secrets. A way would be found, whatever the challenges. With de Lesseps at the head of this great project, all of France was certain of success.

But Ferdinand de Lesseps was not an engineer, and Panama was not the Suez. The Isthmus of Suez had been relatively flat; Panama was folded by immense, rocky hills. Suez had been sandy and barren; Panama was a dense tropical jungle slashed by a raging river that could rise more than 40 feet in the rainy season. In Egypt there had been an abundance of cheap labor; Panama had no labor force whatsoever — everything, including manpower, had to be imported.

There was one more challenge in Panama that de Lesseps had never faced in the Suez: disease. The jungles and swamps of Panama were perfect breeding grounds for malaria, yellow fever and typhoid, not to mention all manner of venomous snakes and insects.

In the late 1800’s, no one understood the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of disease, and while the French brought their best doctors to Panama, they did nothing to attack the mosquito problem. Workers began dying at alarming rates. Young, healthy French engineers would land in Panama full of enthusiasm and excitement, only to die within weeks. Malaria and yellow fever ravaged the entire workforce, young and old, male and female, black and white.

“[E]very prior estimate of the size of the task had been woefully inaccurate,” writes David McCullough in a carefully researched history The Path Between the Seas: The creation of the Panama Canal.

Even ignoring the tens of thousands of deaths from illness, a sea level canal was simply impossible in the rugged Isthmus of Panama. De Lesseps had always insisted that a way would be found, but the project had been dogged from the beginning by engineering setbacks, disasters, deadline slippages and monumental cost overruns. When the investors finally refused to provide more money, The Panama Canal Company collapsed and Ferdinand de Lesseps’ reputation was ruined.

To most Frenchmen, Ferdinand de Lesseps was a great man whose success at Suez made him too big to fail, a belief that de Lesseps himself seems to have shared.

What constitutes greatness? In politics, we think immediately of Lincoln skillfully wielding power to hold the country together, or Madison conceiving of a new liberal approach to government that would provide unheard of freedom for citizens. In science, we remember Newton conceiving of a new branch of mathematics or Einstein imagining how light behaves. We tend to associate greatness with power or insight or the achievement of the impossible.

Jesus saw greatness in terms of how we treat others:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Matthew 20:25-28, NIV

Greatness, in Jesus’ thinking, is not about wielding power but laying it aside. Greatness puts its focus on people rather than some great cause. Jesus pointed to their Roman rulers, men who made themselves great by forcing their subjects into harsh service to the needs of the state.

The search for greatness through power remains the primary motivator of most of the world’s despots. It is also the same thing that motivates many of the leaders of the world’s enlightened democratic states, who enter “public service” hoping to remold society according to their political preferences, wielding the power of the enlightened and benevolent state like a bludgeon.

But in all that he taught and lived, Jesus repudiated that path to greatness and modeled instead a greatness rooted in humility and servanthood, a life focused on compassionate engagement with people in their very human and ordinary needs and pains. Jesus’ raison d’être was to become for each individual his or her invitation to a restoration of their broken relationship with God.

Like Patton, I have sometimes felt that I should be accomplishing some great thing. Like Ferdinand de Lesseps, I have sometimes been driven by an inner need to carve my name in history. These days, lots of us are looking for a chance at fame and recognition, and TV shows like American Idol and The Voice feed the belief that we all deserve the trappings of greatness.

And then there was Jesus, who only sought to be great in the eyes of his Father, and who achieved greatness by healing the sick, comforting the hurting, bringing hope and joy to the suffering, and laying down his life for us all.

Photo credit: Charlie Lehardy, November, 2006.

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