Capable of Greatness

I’ve been slowly going through the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. Most of the musicians and groups are unknown to me (it’s been decades since I even attempted to keep up with music). Truth is, most of the acts are interesting, but don’t really grab me. Maybe one in ten engages; none have made me a new fan.

Which is a whole other story. I mention it because many of these music makers are sweet, gentle, loving people who just want everyone else to be sweet, gentle, and loving. It’s a common sentiment. Banish the bad forever!

But balance is required. There is a Yin-Yang aspect to life.

Humans are capable of greatness — that’s kind of the thing about humans. In a very short span of time we’ve gone from being little more than another animal to exploring nearly every corner of Earth (and even some of nearby space). We happily inhabit a variety of ecological niches.

Someone once equated our greatness with the greatness of cyanobacteria on the basis that the bacteria had (very usefully) altered the Earth in creating the oxygen atmosphere current life thrives in. But it took them many hundreds of millions of years to do it, they are restricted to their ecological niche, and they never did anything else, so I don’t see that much greatness.

Humans, in a mere 10,000 years or so, haven’t just expanded to fill the planet. We have altered it significantly. (Possibly to our own peril. Certainly to our peril in small ways in toxins and plastics.) We make ourselves at home from the equator to both poles.

We sail above and under all the seas, we’ve choked near Earth orbit with techno-junk, and we’ve sent robots flying off into space to explore our Solar System (and beyond). We dream of colonies on Mars. We wonder about living under the light of a distant star.

We’ve also created a vast body of art, literature, music, mathematics, and science.

(So, a bit greater than cyanobacteria, is my point. 🙂 )


It’s our great minds that give us this great power we wield, and that power can go in a great many directions.

The gentle wish for a world in which power only works in good directions, but who sets that standard, and more importantly what kind of imbalance does that create?

Is it even possible to constrain our power for greatness?

Just think about all our chances to be great:

  • Great Good ⇔ Great Evil
  • Great Beauty ⇔ Great Ugliness
  • Great Understanding ⇔ Great Ignorance
  • Great Pleasure ⇔ Great Pain
  • Great Peace ⇔ Great War
  • Great Healing ⇔ Great Harm
  • Great Love ⇔ Great Hate
  • Great Gain ⇔ Great Loss
  • Great Joy ⇔ Great Sadness

I just don’t believe we can have the Yang without the Yin. It’s our capacity for greatness that gives us access to the wonderful, but which also opens the door to the terrible.

While it might seem great to only have the highs, I’m not sure that’s possible. When one has coin to spend, one can spend it on anything. Our capacity for greatness is our coin.

If you’ve ever known someone who is bipolar and on medication, a common complaint is how the meds “flatten out” the world and “turn everything grey.” The bipolar don’t get the extreme highs and lows, which is good, but they often don’t experience any variation from the middle.

I think the alternatives are either experiencing all life has to offer, good and bad, or experiencing little or nothing at all.


And, as Stan Lee taught us in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In fact, that’s a message to all humans, because we all have great power for good or ill.

Stay great, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

4 responses to “Capable of Greatness

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Gee, I wonder who made that remark about cyanobacteria. What a nihilistic miscreant. 😉

    Greatness, it seems to me, lies in the eye of the beholder. But I’m with you on the yin and yang part!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve never thought “nihilist” or “miscreant” but “stubborn” has occurred to me. 😀

      First, to be clear on definitions, there is “great” that just means “big” (as in a great ocean or great expanse of space) and there is “great” that refers to accomplishments and abilities (as in the “Great Alexander” or a great athlete or musician). I do mean the latter here.

      I agree our evaluation of greatness — what we think and feel about it — absolutely is in the eye of the beholder.

      I also think there are objective criteria. In the post I gave examples pointing to the underlying “set function” of greatness. It has a lot to do with operating in lots of different ecological niches, the complexity of what is created, the information processed, and the time-spans involved.

      Brains turn out to be real game-changers!

  • Deal

    These days, there’s not just ying/yang, but also one’s and zeroes. On NPR, check out the group (Alt-J) who wrote a song with lyrics in binary. The e tune is rather catchy. I ended up singing to myself, “Zero, zero, one, one, one, zero, zero, one, one….” And more seriously, on You-tube check out their songs Taro and also Tessellate.

And what do you think?

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