What does it mean to be great?

Many men and women have been given this title. Ever since I was a child, I’ve read about the great Americans in storybooks and history texts, seen films made about their lives or visited museums built in their honor. From the patriots who fought for their freedom during the Revolutionary War, to the soldiers, activists, and leaders of our time, the pages of American history are filled with the profiles of truly heroic individuals.

George Washington, first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen. Honest, courageous, a humble leader who turned down a proposal that he be king of the new colonies because he felt that democracy was the best chance for freedom. Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride. Abigail Adams, writing her letters of patriotism and reformation. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence; Benjamin Franklin, inventor, thinker, revolutionary. Davy Crockett, one of the many mountain men who helped to settle America, unusual in his successful political career and defense of Native American rights. Abraham Lincoln, who upheld the ideal of equality for all mankind and saved our nation from separation. Ulysses S. Grant, the stalwart general who refused to back down and finally helped the North win the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt with his “maverick” politics, his nephew Franklin Roosevelt who helped guide America through the Great Depression. Alvin C. York, backwoods sharpshooter of World War I, General MacArthur, hero of the Second World War. John F. Kennedy, author of Profiles in Courage and President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, actor, President who ended the Cold War. Everyday men and women who fight for their country, uphold their values, work hard to make America an even better place for their children.

And yet, as I think of these men and women, I realize that they were not without flaws. Many of them had their own personal demons and struggles, such as General Grant, who was an alcoholic and an indisputable failure of a President. These individuals and many, many others are called “great” because they were brave, they had strong beliefs and were willing to fight for them. They were often unpopular. Abraham Lincoln was hated and ridiculed. In the end he was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. And yet today we remember him as one of the greatest leaders our country ever had.

We sometimes judge greatness by how popular a person is. But history has shown this to be an invalid method. The truly great are often those who are courageous enough to be despised because they know that what they are doing is right. Courage is, after all, not the absence of fear, but the understanding that there is something more important than fear.

I am not yet old enough to vote. On November 4th of this year I will only be 17. Yet I can’t help but wonder, are the men and women whose names will appear on ballots across the nation individuals of true greatness? Do they have the character to uphold the laws and freedoms upon which the country was founded? Will they chose to be honest and upright, even as those who lie and cheat prosper?

Some of the greatest leaders our nation ever had were not considered great during their time. It is when we look back through the perspective of history that we can see the contribution of their strength and determination.

Van Gogh’s paintings were not considered great during his lifetime. In fact, the artist sold only one piece during the whole of his career. In despair, he ended his own life. Had he persevered, we might today have more of the masterpieces he created, which are now sold for millions of dollars.

Difficult times are a challenge for all of us. But they are the refining fire of greatness.

Some of the greatest heroes I have ever known in my own life are people who stood firm through difficult times, even though few saw them or appreciated what they were doing. They may never be famous and their stories may never be told in history books, but they are still great.

Men, women, old and young, people of all backgrounds, nationalities and lifestyles can achieve greatness by standing firm through the difficult times of their lives. Rather then backing away from a challenge, greatness comes when we persevere. This is what I have learned from the examples of those I look up to and from the pages of history. But the decision is ultimately ours to make. As John F. Kennedy wrote, “In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience…each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”

What will you choose?