Tell me your brush with greatness.
How often have we danced around this one—in ice-breakers, job interviews, admissions essays? Predictability aside, it’s an intriguing litmus test.
This was the first speech I assigned students in my Public Speaking & Discussion course. Because, really, who doesn’t want to stand in front of a college classroom of strangers and expose the underbelly of one’s value system? I’ll admit, it was cruel and unusual punishment for them. But I liked it because it cracked the window open a bit, allowing for a closer look.
If you asked me about a brush with greatness—even just a handful of years ago—I’d tell you something impressive, deep, or profound. It would be my way of letting you know that I was all of those things too. I’d probably try to rattle off my full list of brushes in an effort to wow you. I’d casually mention the Olympic gold medalist who had me over (impressive), the Nobel laureate I ran into a few years back (deep), or tell you that I dated a guy who was later quoted in Newsweek (reaching . . . for profound).
But not anymore.
What was synonymous with fame and exceeding societal expectations is, paradoxically now, its opposite.
Call it wisdom, or a contemplation of midlife after plucking the tenth grey hair from my head, but something’s uprooted my definition of greatness. What was synonymous with fame and exceeding societal expectations is, paradoxically now, its opposite. This evolution in thinking is a bit like the fabulous but fabricated highlights masking those now ten plus greys: I’m all for color and camouflage, but I’m finding it’s the underneath that really matters.
Authentic greatness, it turns out, isn’t blingy. It rarely solicits compliments and doesn’t fade after forty washes. It’s less about a gilded exterior and more about what’s unseen. Rachel Held Evans described it best as “the often-overlooked glory of the everyday.” This is greatness uprooted in the muddy trenches of life. Rachel argued that the “noble character” (Hebrew) in the famous Proverbs 31 passage, is more accurately translated as “valor.”
I’ve brushed shoulders with true valor only a time or two. If I’m really honest, I almost missed each one. My radar was set at an entirely wrong frequency. But, when you finally do lock in to the real thing, it’s upending. Here, you find worth far above jewels, medals, prizes, or even the fame of dating-someone-sort-of-important, once. If you asked me about greatness now, I’d tell you stories altogether different. I’d speak of names, not notoriety. I’d tell you that the blood in their veins is blue, and that it flows from the bravest hearts I’ve ever known.
I’d speak to you of living, breathing valor:
She is valor, though I didn’t have a clue on the day we stepped into third grade, and found our desks paired together. I’d tell you how she bravely took a chance on the weird girl; the one who was different from the rest. I’d describe how she reached out her hand with a “Best Friend” necklace in it, and gave it to that girl who wore plaid shirts instead of skirts and played football at recess instead of jumping rope.
I would assure you that all the heroes in the history books tucked inside our desks had fierce competition from this girl who sat beside me, and the woman she would become. Harriot Tubman and Clara Barton braved the battlefields, but so would she.
I’d let you know that this Friday—tomorrow—she’ll take her gloves off for yet another round of chemo. I’d swear to you, the valor and vigor that girds her strength at stage four surpasses all from the stages before.
I’d tell you that I still have my necklace—a medal of bravery—presiding over my kitchen window.
She is valor, the girl who came to college as a roommate, and left as a sister. I’d tell you that the light in her hazel eyes vanished the same day he did. But that every day since, she chooses to rise from her bed anyway. When she walks into her closet, she puts on strength and dignity over bitterness and resentment.
I’d speak of wisdom words, earned by walking through flames, and how they are inked on her arms: Words from a Father who promises that He will never leave. I’d tell you that these arms look well to the ways of her household, as she loves her children with the gentleness and fierceness of the lioness inked on her shoulder. I’d marvel at the kindness on her tongue, but not at the admiration of her children who rise up and bless her. Each one is a priceless prize for doing nobly. I’d tell you that I see the light again. It’s in her eyes as she holds her son, smiles at her daughter, and cheers her boy from the bleachers.
She is valor, the one who sits across from me holding her coffee cup. I’d tell you that the words she speaks here won’t yield a Newsweek byline. But they will cut through the buzzing background noise that is Starbucks and my life, and fall on eager ears. As she opens her mouth in wisdom, I lean in to listen. Her words are life-giving—like the ones that held her husband as he battled Huntington’s disease; building him up, even as his cells were breaking down. His heart trusted in her, because despite the illness there was no lack of gain.
And still, her lamp does not go out at night. She sits with her son in the anxious swells, steadying him once again with words: spoken gifts of patience, kindness and gentleness. She looks well to his ways, liberating the able from his disability. Her days are long, and her path is steep. But all around her dark gives way to light, as she lives a life of praise before her Sustainer.
Ask me about my brush with greatness, and I will tell you of something impressive, deep, and profound. I’ll speak to you of these: Staci, Lora, and Sami. Valor-incarnate.
*Words in bold are taken from Proverbs 31:10-31.