Brush with Greatness
by Alan Cohen
One evening when I picked up my voicemail. I heard a message from my friend Kinnie, who works as a massage therapist at a luxury hotel: “Call me ― I have to tell you about my brush with greatness.”
I phoned Kinnie immediately and asked what had happened. “I massaged Dustin Hoffman today,” she reported proudly.
Well, that was cool. Yet something bothered me about her phraseology, “My brush with greatness.”
“Dustin Hoffman is a great actor,” I told her. “But when you say, ‘my brush with greatness,’ it sounds as if he is great and you are not, and you were lucky to touch greatness for a moment. In my opinion you are just as great as him. You are an outstanding massage therapist and an awesome person. It saddened me to hear you portray yourself as less than him. Who knows, maybe after his massage he phoned a friend and reported, “Let me tell you about my brush with greatness . . .”
Kinnie thanked me for my affirmation of her worth. Yet the lesson goes far beyond that one encounter. We have all have been taught that greatness lives outside of us and we need to rub up against it or import it so we can become great. That’s exactly the opposite of how true greatness operates. Magnificence resides within all of us, and we need but tap into it and bring it forth. We don’t need to brush with greatness; we need to simply brush from greatness.”
We give our power away when we bestow exalted attributes upon people we worship, at the expense of recognizing our own. Former child star Shirley Temple Black recounts, “I gave up believing in Santa Claus when I was six. When my mom took me to see him, he asked for my autograph.” You can imagine the child running to be validated by the god of all children, only to find the god dashing to be validated by the star he adored. While we seek approval from the outside world, if we do not respect ourselves, the gifts bestowed by others fall on barren soil. Rather than importing affirmation from those we adore, we need to claim the good we seek right where we stand. Then we can appreciate and celebrate others’ magnificence side by side with our own.
You cannot acquire greatness by association; you can recognize it only by identity. People who habitually name-drop or flaunt photos of themselves with famous people do not appreciate their inherent worth. It’s not who you know that counts; it’s who you are. When you stand firmly and unapologetically in your own dignity, you attract powerful and worthy comrades. They are drawn to you magnetically, and your conversations are not about what you can get from them, but what you can co-create.
People who brush from greatness, not toward it, are simultaneously humble and powerful. They recognize that the talent that flows through them is seeded from a Source far grander than their ego. When a reporter asked twelve-year-old tennis sensation Jennifer Capriotti, “Do you intend to be the next Chris Evert?” she answered, “No, I intend to be the first Jennifer Capriotti.” Ten-year-old art prodigy Alexandra Nashita, called “the next Picasso,” affirmed, “The difference between me and others is that I am willing to do what I am good at.” Mozart put it this way: “It is when I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer . . . that ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them.”
Many years ago while Ram Dass was under the influence of mind-altering substances at the Newport Jazz Festival, he found his way backstage. There he noticed a hole in the tent and decided to peer out of it. To his surprise, he saw another eye looking back at his. The other eye had obviously ingested similar substances, and the two eyes just stared at each other for a long, long time. Finally a voice accompanying the other eye spoke from outside the tent: “Wanna get in?” The irony, of course, was that Ram Dass already thought he was in. Yet the other guy perceived himself as in. So “inside” and “outside” are relative indeed!
In high school I envied student body president Dick Brown, who was good-looking and popular, offered everyone a smile and kind word, and had a cheerleader girlfriend. I liked Dick but envied him for being in the in-crowd ― actually its leader. By contrast, I judged myself as a less-than, dithering on the outskirts of coolness.
Years later I bumped into Dick and we hashed over high school days. I confessed that I envied him for being in the in-crowd. He laughed and told me, “That’s weird ― I always thought you were the in-crowd and I was out. I envied you.”
How powerfully we upgrade all of our relationships as we let go of seeking external validation, and recognize that the only in-crowd worth penetrating is the one that lives inside us. There and only there will we find the artist’s hand that brushes with greatness.