“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” (Winston Churchill)
The popular quote misattributed to Churchill, seems to actually derive from Victor Hugo who gave it a bit more of a poetic handling:
“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”
Both quotations presume a dynamic about enemies wherein they are attracted, like gnats according to Hugo, towards those who stand up for something or have “done a great deed or created a new idea.”
Perhaps it is the evolution of the era, but I perceive a great deal more enemies relative to great deeds being done in the world. And I know I’m not alone in this assessment. Even within my own lifetime so far, the degree of divisiveness, pettiness, and unnecessary urgency and politicization of even the most mundane differences of perspective has created a social crisis spectacular in the frustrated inertia it foments between us.
Today we no longer need a great idea nor to perform a great deed to attract enemies, like gnats, to the light of our perspective. No. We simply need to read a different book or article, arrive at a different conclusion, or even just decline the urgency of broadcasting our ignorance when it is demanded.
Gone perhaps are the days of great men doing great things for a country greater than its constituent ideas and movements. Here are the days where greatness is simply a product of not being the other, where positions and values change in the blink of an eye, and only those who keep up, unswayed by sentimental values or attachments, will be deemed — if only for a passing moment — great.
Chasing this sort of popular greatness chips away at us. First of course it warns us against thinking for ourselves. Second it instills within us a sense of paranoia. We are all each just one unpopular thought, unpopular word, or unpopular deed away from social exile.
To be truly great in the vein of men described by Hugo and Churchill, is to free-fall into this anti-popularity. It is to find the courage and sense of place in the world to take up the defense of those people and places one loves.
No part of this spectacularly divided society prepares one for this kind of greatness. And certainly no part of this society prepares one to become this kind of great man later in life. Indeed, the very idea of changing one’s mind, that is, exhibiting personal growth as an individual and the capacity to process new information, is a faux pas.
Popular greatness fears this kind of change because to acknowledge it may lead to recognition of its own amorphous nature, which unlike the great man, lacks the battle-earned discernment of a moral compass. Popularity is based in currency, social or otherwise. Greatness is a matter of moral discipline.
To change our lives in any sense, whether to become the progenitor of great deeds and ideas or to simply become a greater man within ourselves, is necessarily in this era an act of destruction.
It is both our own old self who must be destroyed and re-made, and also our relationships to the people and places who bind us to that old self which must be severed and re-grown.
As a coach, I have observed this dynamic countless times in clients who are becoming great men in their own right. The vision we hold of our greatest selves is rarely the vision held by our friends, our bosses, our religious communities, or our social networks. Those forces, where they exist, will often seek to shame and tame us back into the self we are leaving behind.
More than physical addictions or economic challenges, this kind of social brutality is what I see triggering clients to backslide and relapse. Changing your life will destroy everything.
Without courage, without commitment and discipline to achieving the final vision, the fire will only scald, it will not forge. That is, it is easy to simply become a man with enemies. In today’s world, one hardly even needs to try.
But to become a man of great deeds and new ideas, the man of petty deeds and popular opinion must be left behind. Everything about him must be thrown to the fires and permitted to change. Only then can the great man emerge.