I am given to think that the saying is true; all glory is fleeting. The origins of the phrase are shrouded in mystery, being shown the light of day in the movie Patton! and George C. Scott. The story goes that in the days of ancient Rome a conquering hero was given a great triumph, a great parade through the eternal city, complete with trumpeters, elephants, and all of the splendor the capital could muster. As the triumphant hero was making his way through the city, there was a slave assigned to whisper in his ear, “All glory is fleeting”, a stark reminder that even while in the throes of this great procession, glory never lasts very long, so enjoy the moment.
The great Roman orator, Cicero, had one such glorious moment, as did Napoleon, Caesar, Catherine the Great, and every other figure that history thrusts upon us. While not being marked by a triumph through the streets of Rome, we are content to make our own such displays with celebratory parties with friends, gatherings at a local watering hole, or a simple dinner at home, the satisfaction of our accomplishments ringing in our ears and at the forefront of our minds.
It did get me to thinking though. The character of a person may not be so visible as when the procession is making its way down the thoroughfare accompanied by the songs of thousands. Character is revealed after the fanfare stops.
Many continue to marinate in the juices of victory, never moving forward but rather content to speak of their accomplishment, reveling in it for as long as they can. Who doesn’t want to sit in a warm bath basking in sunlight and glory? They remain secure in the knowledge that what they accomplished is greater than anything they’ve done before. Hence, they remain, unchanging or maybe closer to the truth, unwilling to attempt greatness again. That, in the end, is what separates those history remembers from those that were almost to the mountaintop; the willingness to attempt the climb once again, unsure of the outcome. Contrary to what we’ve been told, it is not the attempt that really matters, but rather repeating greatness once it has been achieved.
In the end, that’s all anyone will remember, despite our protestations to the contrary. It is grandeur, splendor, and greatness that matters in this life, else to be relegated to the primordial ooze that is the rest of humanity’s proletarian existence.
To be mediocre is to embrace ordinary. Many are content with that, never risking, never wishing to venture out of their cocoon of comfort. It is only those with the willingness to fail, those with the inexorable drive to be more than they are that can truly achieve for themselves and others, risking all in the process. Their reputation, their sense of self, their privacy, their friendships are all fodder once the chase has commenced. This is why so many lose their families, lose their friends, and sometimes, lose themselves. They become consumed with the goal, it becomes their only reason for existing, as a drug abuser chases the high.
Once they’ve attained what they’ve set out to do, the question then becomes what’s next? They are the restless souls, moving with the consistency of a shark, but also the ones the push humanity to be more than what we think we can be.
After being feted and praised, there is the inevitable retreat, only to confront themselves and either try again or live on what they’ve already accomplished. That, in the end, is the eternal question for all that choose to follow the path of greatness. Attempt, fail, attempt, fail, and then succeed only to ask the same sacrifice of oneself again. Many cannot or won’t as the payment was too much. So, they disappear, never to be heard from again.
This is what separates Mozart from his peers, or Hemingway from just about everyone else. It is also what burns them out, choosing to drown themselves in drink or commit suicide to placate the incessant drive that eats away at them as a disease. The voices loud enough that they must, after a time, be silenced.
Maybe we only have so much inside of us. Most know not what our limits are as most are never brave enough to challenge themselves to find out, preferring the company of warm milk to the sting of bourbon.
To challenge, achieve and challenge ourselves again is too risky, and too uncomfortable. Maybe once is enough. Maybe not at all. Maybe that’s the point of achieving greatness…to see if we can do it again.
It’s true. All glory is fleeting, as are we.