What makes a life ‘great’?

While I’ve been doing my work at AgFirst laboratory slicing kiwifruit for analysis, I’ve been listening to a variety of podcasts. My favourite is the BBC series Great Lives.
Presenter Matthew Parris introduces a person who has nominated someone as their ‘Great Life’, and also involves someone with particular knowledge of that Great Livesperson. The nominated ‘Great Life’ are people from all walks of life, not all of them British, and from all ages of history. I have never heard of many of them. But almost without exception they are extremely interesting, and from whom I learn something about their contribution to the world….and ultimately, in some way, to my life. Probably yours, too.
They are people who have contributed to the rich weaving of human history. The Great Lives programme is not hagiography – a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence. The flaws, mistakes and weaknesses of those people are acknowledged, but not dwelt on.
Which brings me to a question. Who are people you know whose life you would regard as ‘great’? In my own life, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Paul Reeves are people who immediately coPaul Reevesme to mind. And closer to home, former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.
What, for you, constitutes a great life? What makes greatness?
I think of in terms of accomplishments, contributions to the life of the world, care of others, and personal integrity, together with that mix of humility, common-sense, and personal warmth that makes people attractive to others.
Scottish American industrialist Andrew Carnegie led the enormous expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century. He became immensely wealthy and gave away to charities and foundations about $350 million(in 2015, $4.76 billion) – almost 90 percent of his fortune.
Our minister, Reece Frith, commented on Carnegie’s life in a serAndrew Carnegiemon at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Katikati, on May 3, 2015. Quoting from Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods, he said: Although Carnegie built 2,059 libraries……. a steelworker, speaking for many, told an interviewer, “We didn’t want him to build a library for us, we would rather have had the higher wages.” At that time steelworkers worked twelve-hour shifts on floors so hot they had to nail wooden platforms under their shoes. Every two weeks they toiled an inhuman twenty-four hour shift, and then they got their sole day off. The best housing they could afford was crowded and filthy. Most died in their forties or earlier, from accidents or disease….
Was Carnegie a great man?
Over the course of my life I have conducted a great many funerals. Funeral orations are nearly always hagiography. They may present a life story, but almost without exception we hear of the great qualities and achievements of a person’s life, not their weaknesses, failings and mistakes. Sometimes I come away from a funeral like that feeling sold short. Feeling like I had heard about a sort of unreal person. And wondering if that’s how that person would have wanted themselves presented.
That will probably happen at your funeral, too.
Each of us includes elements of greatness….and doses of insignificance and mistakes and personal failure.
My mother used to say, “there’s a bit of bad in the best of us and a bit of good in the worst of us.”
The Great Lives podcasts are interesting and informative, and it help me appreciate the contribution everyone, great or small, known or unknown, you and I, make to the life of our little, beautiful, flawed and fragile planet. Let’s celebrate those lives in their wholeness!


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