True Greatness

What makes a life lived and honorable life? What does it mean to create goodness with your life? What does it mean to make an impact and a difference? What is true greatness?

With the renaming of buildings and the consideration of whether or not someone should have a statue built to honor and remember them, it’s caused me to wonder how we choose to make a statue. If you were asked o chose someone to have a statue built to honor their life and accomplishments, who would you choose and why would you choose them? What accomplishments would you deem worthy to honor throughout time? Would they have to have a clean past? What parts of their past would you be willing to overlook? Are there any choices and actions from their life that you would “disqualify” them as being a worthy candidate for a statue? What kind of people are worthy of being honored and remembered? And what value is there in honoring and remembering them? What’s the purpose or motivation in honoring and remembering them?

Our society is built around being the best. The Olympics. American Idol. New York Best Seller. The Grammy Awards. So many of our experiences measure who is the fastest, the smartest, the most talented. We are constantly measuring and honoring those individuals whose skills excel beyond the skills and talents of the rest. But I’m not so sure this is always an accurate way to measure greatness. If what someone is able to accomplish is less than what others are able to do does that make them less great?

Tony Robbins raised 18 million dollars on his 60th birthday to donate to O.U.R., a nonprofit organization that rescues children from being trafficked. It made the headlines and one can easily search “Tony Robbins’s 60th Birthday” and find articles and videos about this remarkable accomplishment. But are the actions of the person who donates $5 a month to O.U.R. equally honorable? Tony Robbins made the news. The person donating $5 monthly will most likely never make any headlines. So is greatness measured in the impact that it makes?

Irena Sendler was able to rescue 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghettos. Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 lives. Should the most recognition go to the one who saved the most people? But it shouldn’t be about the numbers, right? Schindler had a successful movie made about him, Irena Sendler’s story was buried beneath the political weight of the communist power over Poland after the war. Telling her story was dangerous. If the facts of her heroic efforts were made known it would put thousands at risk. It wasn’t until the 1960s, twenty years after the war, that her story began to slowly surface. In 1965, the Holocaust memorial organization in Israel awarded Irena Sendler by adding her name to the list of those who are “Righteous Among the Nations”, its highest honor, and planted a tree in her honor on the Mount of Remembrance. However, Irena was unable to travel to Jerusalem to accept the award because she could not get permission from her country to leave Poland. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but it was awarded to Al Gore instead for his work on global warming. Which again brings up the question of what should be honored and recognized? Is global warming more honorable than the sacrifices and moral courage that it took to save 2,500 lives? How do you measure greatness? What individuals should be honored and recognized? The one who rescued 5 Jews? The one who rescued 500?

In addition to the magnitude of her efforts, there were other acts of courage that were also honorable.

Many of the children that Irena recused from the Warsaw Ghetto escaped by traveling through the underground sewer lines. On this particular night, it was a Jewish teenage girl who escorted the children out of the ghetto leading them through the dark, dangerous, and dirty underground pathway in hopes of a chance for survival. But something had gone wrong and the Jewish courier was unable to get the kids to the safe house. With nowhere else to go, she made the risky decision to take the children to Irena’s house. Going directly to Irena’s house risked exposing Irena and jeopardizing the entire secret organization that had carefully been created to rescue Jewish children from the ghetto. As Irena opened the door at 3 am to let in the teenage girl and the children accompanying her, Irena noticed a neighbor’s door slightly open to see what the commotion in the hall was at this early hour, and then quickly close. Irena quickly brought the children inside and began washing them. They had to be clean, their clothes had to be clean. There was no way to safely and quickly move the children to a safe place unless the stench of the sewers was washed from their clothes and their bodies. In those days, a child covered in raw sewage could only mean one thing.

The neighbor who donated the soap.

Soap was a precious wartime commodity. Made from animal fats and ashes, it was easy to come by in time of plenty. But in the winter of 1942-43 the hungriest citizens of Warsaw resorted to cooking old shoe leather for soup stock and protein. Lard and bacon drippings were gourmet treasures. Better to be dirty than hungry, if those were the only choices. Irena and her mother were lucky to be able to get small supplies of lye soap to do their laundry.

Soap? Her mother shook her head. There was nothing left but the small half sliver in the kitchen, now a tin and flabby wafer, not enough to wash the last of the children. Lack of soap was such a little thing, but it might cost them everything.

Irena thought for a long moment. Alternative plans, alternative scenarios? She could see none. What else could she do? There was no other option. So, going to the doorway, she slipped into the hallway. She would have to ask her neighbor. Irena drew a breath and knocked quietly.

She knew it was an act of wild faith. She would have to gamble that her neighbor would no betray her. The door opened cautiously, and the woman’s eyes were wide with terror. Irena realized in an instant that she, too, was worried that a knock could only mean the Gestapo. Irena quickly tried to reassure her. Soap? I am doing my laundry. I can’t sleep. It was four a.m. and the old woman had not been sleeping either.

The woman turned wordlessly, but she did not close the door behind her. Irena stood, waiting. What did it mean? Was she summoning the Gestapo even now? Was it an invitation? The harsh light in the hallway showed the nicks and scratches in the woodwork and the places on the stairs where years of footsteps had worn the treads. Just as Irena was about to turn away, she heard the soft footstep again, and a wrinkled hand held out a moist package quickly wrapped in a bit of paper. Touching her hand, it was warm and soft, and Irena took the offering. Thank you, she whispered. Mrs. Sendler cam the hushed reply, you are welcome.

Irena’s Children, by Tilar J. Mazzeo, p.182


That night Irena Sendler acted with moral courage in a way that put her life in danger. The teenage Jewish girls acted with moral courage in a way that put her life in danger. The neighbor acted with moral courage in a way that put her life in danger. These were all acts of true greatness. But I guess we honor Irena Sendler because she did it over and over and over again. Her determination to face evil with moral integrity and courage never wavered. Moment after agonizing moment she chose goodness in the face of so much pressure to do otherwise.

I think we need to change our way of thinking from searching for the “greatest” to searching for the great. It is valuable to recognize and honor those who made a significant difference and who had the big impact. But in doing so we need to be careful to not minimize the honorable acts of others even if the quantity of the acts are not a numerous as those we honor. There are those who risk more, give more, and sacrifice more, and more consistently. There are those who because of who they are and who they have become live a life full of great moments. We need to recognize, honor, and remember them perhaps more for our sake than theirs.

Learning about the life of Irena Sendler pushed me to think more deeply about the woman I want to be and how I want to respond in the face of moral complexity. There is value in hearing the stories of those who acted with true greatness. True greatness is acting with moral courage and moral integrity in the face of so much pressure to do otherwise. It’s the willingness to choose to do good, when choosing good comes at such a high cost. And it’s the willingness to continue to choose to do good even when your efforts seem to make very little difference in comparison to the destruction that dominates.

Image Credit: https://irenasendler.org/project/irena-sendler/