I have a brother who wrote the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. To say that it was quite an accomplishment is an understatement. Needless to say, I puff out with pride when I think of his incredible contribution to the world. I also have an uncle who is now retired, but was once one of the premier cardiologists in the world. Kings and presidents came from around the globe for his expertise. My daughters often comment that it was somewhat difficult to grow up in a family where so many people were so bright and accomplished. On the other hand they felt honored to be in the presence of greatness.
I used to tell my children that some lives that may seem small at first glance are in reality incredibly important in the grand scheme of things. My brother grew up under the guidance of a child of immigrants who spent most of her life in a state of hardship. In spite of the difficulties that plagued her, she had the ability to see the potential of her son and to inspire him to literally reach for the stars. Her contribution to our world was in many ways as remarkable as his.
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and autobiographies. I suppose that I am intrigued by the backgrounds of famous people and whose influences loomed large in their lives. A common theme that leads to greatness is having a parent or grandparent who nurtures the curiosity and intellect of a child to the point of inspiring them to live extraordinary lives.
One of my favorite books was about the physicist, Richard Feynman. Dr. Feynman described how his father explained to him how things work from the time that he was a small child. Feynman remembered his father placing a ball inside a wagon and then jerking the wagon forward quickly. The father asked his son what he had seen happen which of course was that as the wagon lurched forward the ball moved backward. This demonstrated one of the elemental laws of physics and inspired the young Richard to spend his lifetime studying and teaching physics.
You may remember Dr. Feynman as the man who demonstrated what happened to the Challenger rocket that blew up killing all of the astronauts inside. On a panel taxed with determining what had happened, Dr. Feynman took an O ring similar to the ones used on the rocket and quietly placed it in a glass of ice water. As he swirled it around the ring became distorted, losing the shape that would have sealed the fuel had everything gone well. In other words the cold of launch day had created a doomsday scenario only because of a tiny ring had lost its shape and no longer worked as it was supposed to do.
The influence of parents, family members, teachers and even neighbors looms large in the life of a child. If the people around that tiny human nurture the talents and instill confidence greatness often results. We saw it with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose grandmother often predicted that he was destined to do something big. When Martin did not die after falling from a second story window as a boy, his grandmother proclaimed that God had an important job for him to do. Amazingly, it seems that she was right.
When we interact with the young people around us we never quite know what our impact will be. Hopefully we will not harm them in such a way that they become damaged. In truth, most of the violence and sorrow that we see in the world comes from individuals who personalities have been somehow warped, either by genetic disorders or interactions with people who did not treat them properly. Just as my brother, Dr. Feynman and Dr. King became great men through the interactions with members of their families, some sad souls only see neglect and abuse as children. Their lives are filled with misery rather than inspiration. Their world view sees only sorrow, not possibilities. Unfortunately, such people all too often treat their own offspring as badly as they were treated and the vicious cycle of neglect continues unabated unless someone intercedes.
Behind every important person there is always someone who guided them to greatness. We don’t often hear about the silent souls who devote time helping a child to fulfill the talents that he or she has. They remain mostly unknown and yet their contribution to society is as great as the person who invents something new or the individual who lead the world to peace. We never know what our personal impact on the world will be, but we can be sure that helping young people to fulfill their destinies is always an admirable task.
My brother inspired my grandson to follow in his footsteps, but it was my grandson’s mother who spent eighteen years helping him to develop his talents in mathematics and physics. It was my sister-in-law who took the time to explain to him how to adjust a telescope to gaze at the stars who convinced him that there would be many other teachers who would guide his way to a career of navigating those stars. It was his great grandmother who told him that he was brilliant and meant to be a leader in the world. These people gave him the confidence to move forward in pursuit of his goals. In doing so, they have been as great as he most surely will become.