Henry David Thoreau eventually became famous for his Walden journal and other works, but during his lifetime he undoubtedly faced many of the obstacles that writers have always encountered. Rejected manuscripts, peevish editors, cynical critics, well meaning people who helpfully suggested that he take up carpentry, farming, or some other more "respectable," profitable occupation (in other words, "get a job"). Henry David Thoreau's writings today occupy an honored place among the classics of literature, and his thoughts tower over those of popular writers of his own era, now obscure to ours. He died young, probably never anticipating the posthumous rewards of his writing career, or having the slightest inkling of the impact his deliberate life would have on subsequent generations.
William Blake has been well loved by generations of readers, although during his lifetime he was more or less what we might call a "starving artist." He gained some recognition for his masterful illustrations, but although his writings may have been published during his lifetime, they were not widely appreciated until after his death. His writings reflect brilliance of a rare variety, and his visions are so thoroughly infused with spirit that his poetic words and beautiful images live and burn in the imaginations of countless minds touched by them. William Blake may never have been considered a successful man by the standards of his own society, but like a lantern his mind shines a light across ages.
Great scientists often received the scorn and ridicule of contemporaries for theories and experiments that seemed absurd or contradicted "accepted wisdom. " Some maverick scientists recanted their theories, forced or persuaded through peer pressure, torture, or threat of imprisonment. Others settled for lives of relative obscurity and poverty: they devoted themselves to the pursuit of pure knowledge, determined to discover the truth at all costs. I fondly think of Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, otherwise known as Paracelsus, often considered the father of modern chemistry and/or medicine. His life as an itinerant physician, reformer, and devotee of the healing arts acquired him little wealth or recognition by his peers, but he made enormous contributions to the expanding sphere of human knowledge.
These men have always inspired me. They challenge me to follow my dreams and pursue my theories, to treasure things of the spirit, and to view our times as a humble moment in the grand procession of days and decades. Their stories illustrate the profound difference between popularity and greatness or celebrity and cultural significance, between earning a living and succumbing to a living, and the polarity between acceptance of conventional wisdom and the seeking of truth. They lived in obscurity to rise again after death in the way that original and fearlessly independent thinkers often do. They spurned the gilt of social approval and sought a form of alchemy, preferring an internal refining process to refinements of an exterior nature. They did not claim greatness: greatness claimed them.
A yellowing but treasured clipping of wisdom from my mental scrapbook, the source long forgotten, suggests that one should not choose one's heroes from among the living: presumably because the living have sufficient time to disappoint one's high expectations, and being human, will almost certainly do so. Being human, we tend to expect more or less of our heroes than humanity. Rather than fault ourselves for harboring unreasonable expectations or holding our human heroes to impossible standards, we blame them for disappointing their admirers by proving themselves imperfect. Heroes are humans, too.
Political movements, commonly referred to as "grassroots movements," grow and die as quickly as the grassroots image suggests. Grass springs up rapidly and spreads easily under favorable conditions, without developing deep roots and resistance to adverse conditions like drought or fire. A swiftly moving forest fire may burn away grasses and shrubs but leave healthy trees relatively undisturbed, and a fire of that type may enhance the survival of trees by cutting off the growth of fuel for more devastating, slow moving fires in the future. Nobody speaks of tree movements in a sense comparable to grassroots movements. What does the smallest acorn understand that the tallest grass never will?
Life constantly presents choices to us, and the ability to choose represents freedom. The realm of politics attracts those who wish to alter society by restricting choices of one sort or another, for whatever noble or ignoble reasons. A politically active person represents his own interests, whether he decides to pursue a political career or chooses to support someone whose vision he deems most compatible with his own. A human life devoted to grassroots activism or climbing vine-like upwardly against the cold edifices of political power flourishes briefly and perhaps showily, until adverse conditions (like death) set in.
A human life spent developing a complex individual system of roots and branches for oneself takes a lifetime to mature and bear fruit, and often the people who live such lives go unnoticed. Invisible giants quietly walk amongst us, as they have in every generation. Rarely do such giants appear extraordinary: unlike the phantasmagoric profiles presented by politicians (often revealed as small minded men in the light of history), only time will reveal the truly giant minds produced by a generation, and time will not soon forget them.
If you would learn how to spot some of these giants, reflect on the unseen potential of every person you meet. No matter how strange or insignificant a person may seem, or how unimpressive he may appear, he has the potential to be a giant somewhere within him. Look in the mirror: you have the potential to be a giant somewhere within you, and if you laugh at that thought, chances are you'll have laughed at the previous thought too.
Most of us never rise to meet our potential. That does not mean that we cannot, or that we should not try. A good way to begin developing or discovering your own inner giant is by becoming aware of the potential giant within everyone else. It takes a potential giant to know one, and before you know it you may be seeing latent giants everywhere.
There are worse ways to change the world than by changing the lens you see it through. I can't think of a better way to change the world without also leaving it the worse for wear.
(Author's note: I have relied upon memory rather than recent research into the lives of the aforementioned individuals, in order to illuminate the purpose of this essay through brief sketches of their extraordinary accomplishments despite seemingly ordinary lives. )
published at Endervidualism on 2/19/04