Blog Post #46
On this Veteran’s Day I ask the question: What is greatness?
When I think about what makes someone great, I can’t help but think about planting apple trees. *John Chapman, AKA “Johnny Appleseed,”was the son of a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill. Chapman spent a lifetime planting and cultivating a tart variety of apples, called “spitters,” (because that’s what you’d do if you bit into one), but which made good cider. He purchased lands to homestead, planted fifty acres of trees on a parcel, then sold the land to settlers throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. His travels took him over 100,000 square miles of wilderness, and by the time he died, he owned 1200 acres. Avid in his Swedenborg faith, he remained unmarried and chaste throughout his life, and was an advocate for all animal life.
It wasn’t in the planting of trees, or the harvesting of apples, his unusual rustic garb, or his travels that made Johnny Appleseed great. I believe his greatness was in his unselfish labors, in planting something good for others to enjoy at some future time (rather than hoarding the fruits of his effort for himself). The backbreaking work of clearing land, preparing, planting, and cultivating fruit-bearing trees was not a passive hobby. It required sweat and toil. It was a labor of love and a selfless sacrifice. That’s why I think of his planting of apple trees as greatness. When someone plants an apple tree, knowing they will not benefit from its shade, fruit, or beauty, that’s selflessness, and selflessness for the good of others is greatness.
Those who serve our country know what it means to give selfless service. They often sacrifice family, health, convenience, personal time, and the fruits they may have planted in their homeland of America, leaving a bounty of the blessings of preserved freedoms for those at home to enjoy while they labor on foreign soil.
My father’s generation—the World War II generation— was truly great. Most of their generation understood and strived to live lives of decency, courage, self-sacrifice, self-mastery, and fortitude. They laid their lives on the line for the good of their families and others, for the good of their nation, and for the good of the world. Many, like my father, stepped forward and volunteered to serve before the draft. They saw a need and rose to the occasion without coercion or intimidation. They gave all for their beliefs, and for a love of liberty, and they did it without complaining or whining. They were a willing and hard-working generation, and they did so honestly and with humility. Sure, there are those who bucked this standard, but they were comparatively few.
Those of that generation who remained at home were great, too. They worked for the USO, and stocked the garners of liberty with their offerings, doing what they could: newspaper drives, rubber drives, sewing, cooking, entertaining troops, and giving what they had to give. My mother wrote to servicemen, and worked as a draftswoman for the war effort. These folks had love of country branded in their hearts, and that patriotism appeared in their music, movies, conversations, billboards, and by their home fires.
Yes, there were evil folks in that generation, too. Yes, there were those who were lazy, self-serving and contemptible, and no, I’m not suggesting that their generation alone cornered the market on that which was great. There are many great men and women from generations prior to theirs, as well as after, and also today. There is much good in the world today. While we are bombarded with the notion that society, in general, is tipping the scale in a direction away from decency and selflessness toward incivility and self-gratification, and there does appear to be more concern about who is “wrong” than what is right….And though the banks of meaningful conversation are overrun by a glib texting of words and tweets, and an inability to listen to or value what is precious to another, or to find the common ground that unites us as a people, and as members of humanity….And even if much of what we see and hear casts the pendulum as swinging away from civility…. Even though it is possible, even probable, that all of this is rooted in truth, I look around at my neighborhood, and am grateful to see an overwhelmingly quiet, industrious, respectful and generous body of people. These are good people who care about each other, and perform quiet acts of service for neighbors – neighbors they didn’t choose, but have embraced.
We have neighbors who took the trouble to build a counter on which they freely give away lemons and limes in season.We have neighbors who bring us delicious persimmons, peaches, and plums – sharing their bounty with others. We have neighbors who create marvelous light displays for others to enjoy during the holidays. We have neighbors who overwhelmed us with their kindness when death reached our doors. We have neighbors who anonymously leave flowers, notes, and gifts on our doorstep. We have neighbors who take in our mail, and return our garbage cans without our asking. We have neighbors who are decent, kind and serve others. We have “great” neighbors; we have “Johnny Appleseed” sorts of neighbors. I hope we may be found in every way equal to our neighbors in these selfless acts of goodness.
We are all the same, really. From my perspective, 9-11 gave proof of that. When 9-11 happened, for a small moment in time, the people of America laid aside personal biases and agendas, and became one in charity and in patriotism – linking arms, hearts, and minds to comfort the downtrodden, provide aide to the suffering, and preserve what was most dear to us all. For a moment, we as a unified nation assumed the attributes of the greatest generation. In most scenarios, we saw others the way we saw ourselves – vulnerable, hopeful, and in many ways, equal. We cared about each other because someone from without was threatening our way of life and our very lives in a very real and tangible way.
In Abraham Lincoln’s famous Address, which he delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838, titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” he said these words:
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
During the 1858 Senatorial campaign, Lincoln also said:
“Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.”
It’s not too late to plant apple trees instead of “the seeds of despotism” for the next generation…to leave a positive legacy for our children – for our posterity – of hope that feeds the body and soul with the fruit of goodness, kindness, truthfulness, respect, tolerance, faith, and love. It’s not too late to live for others.
“Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858 Senatorial campaign)
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.