A friend and I were recently discussing what it means to say that someone has lived "A Big Life." If we were on a committee together to give the Big Life Award and had to come up with some criteria, would you agree with these? And who would you nominate? Here are my suggestions and two nominations:
1. Extensive humanitarian work. This person has seen a wide breadth of humanity, the privileged, the underprivileged, and gotten their hands dirty in knowing both. They have reached out to others in a very personal and ongoing way (beyond sending cash), despite the fact that they didn't have to and not just for the show of it but because they genuinely cared.
2. They are a self-made person in some way. Luck may have played into their life, but they also worked hard to make that luck into something more than a passenger ride. If they have achieved measurable career or personal "success," it is due primarily to their own meritable efforts and laudable ideas, not based on the work of others.
3. They are well-traveled and, within that context, have enjoyed the finer side of that experience as well as interacting in the lives of the common man. They understand noblesse oblige as more than an expression but as a moral imperative because they have come to understand the lives and needs of the ordinary individuals they have met in their travels and feel a personal need to change what they can.
4. Someone who has not been afraid to speak their mind and do things (when necessary) in a very different way than the rest of the crowd -- a maverick; a firebrand. These are the people who change everyone around them, like a comet streaking through the lives they touch.
At first blush, I think we all want to think of someone we know -- a loved one perhaps -- as having lived a big life, but I believe it is the rare individual who fits these categories. Most of us are preoccupied with getting along in our own lives and don't get beyond that challenge to reach out to the greater humanity. We think of being devoted to friends or family as virtuous, and of course it IS -- because that is a step above being devoted to ourselves.
I would argue that people who have lived the biggest lives would never admit it and would say their lives are quite small because they are always seeking to achieve more for others -- beyond family and friends.
My first two candidates: Desmond Tutu and George Clooney.
Okay. Shoot me down.