"Words once in common use now sound so archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus... Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest -- unknown, unasked for a minute after death. What is 'eternal' fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish actions; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
At the moment I write this, there are homeless people in the city I live in. There are people with families and children who have no money and who are facing eviction; who right now, as I write this, are dreading tomorrow morning because they will no longer be able to have a home. There are people who have burden upon burden pile upon them or their families: poverty, sickness, physical and mental abuse, physical and mental illness, lack of education or opportunities. People with such clear disadvantages in life that it is hard to fathom what the point was in their being born at all. Why be born only to struggle in such harrowing conditions. To have the powerful pulse to live, only to be constantly thwarted by the difficulty in achieving even the most basic securities required for living well. People in such hard circumstances that to even think about the possibility of my life looking like theirs makes me shudder with incomprehension.
Those people, how far they seem from Obama and Bill Gates, from Michael Jordan and Madonna, from Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. These people seem to exemplify human life in some form. They seem to transcend even the question of whether their life was worth living, for the answer seems so obviously "yes!" They seem like paradigms of what a human life can look like, paradigms which call out for emulation. Can we imagine Michael Jordan homeless? Or Rawls living in the projects as a drug addict? The mind rebels at the thought. At least my mind rebels, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. The mind cries out, "No, not Michael Jordon! He is the very exemplar of being an athlete!" He embodies excellence in such a pure form that we can only imagine him as a shining beacon, a distant star which we are lucky to behold in our midst. He is so perfect at what he does that he seems to have achieved a kind of perfection as a human being, as if the halo of his excellence at basketball has expanded to envelope his whole life, and he stands forth as an ideal of humanness--a modern day Achilles.
These people's lives seem meaningful because it is their lives that we orient our own life around. It is tempting and natural to say, "Of course Einstein or Mother Teresa or Gandhi lived worthwhile lives!" For their lives have become for us not just the lives of particular people, but something more. Something much more. They have become ideals by which we define what a worthwhile life looks like.
These people, the greats, seem unique because they exhibit a skill which the vast majority of people can't even hope to have--a skill which in fact seems particular just to those great people. In contrast, those people, the utter have nots, seem to barely be managing a human life because they cannot consistently exercise even the most basic skills which most people take completely for granted; skills of self-sufficiency such as having a bed for the night and a shower in the morning.
These people are at one end, and those people are at the other end. I seem to be in the middle, along with multitudes of people.