How to Become Great
(Posted September 16, 2021)
Without a doubt, one of my favorite things to read is a good short story. Unfortunately, these days they have dropped off the radar screen for modern readers, although you’d think that the Kindle would be a perfect medium for them.
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The readings coming up for this Sunday brought to mind one particular short story: The Last Leaf by O. Henry. Much of his work was set in the gritty working-class areas of New York City around the turn of the 20th century, and this story is, too.
It revolves around a little colony of artists living in Greenwich Village, including two young women artists who have as their neighbor a crusty old painter in his 60’s, Mr. Behrman. His artistic life has been one long failure, the pain of which he drowns in gin regularly, and which makes him curmudgeonly. This world-weary man considers kindness and softness of any kind to a sign of weakness. But still, he quietly watches over his two young women neighbors, Johnsy and Sue.
Becoming Great: When the Last Leaf Falls
And then, a terrible epidemic breaks out, a kind of pneumonia that is taking lives right and left. (Sound familiar?) Johnsy falls desperately ill and the doctor only gives her a one in ten chance to live. Her bed is opposite a window that looks out on a brick wall where a trail of ivy climbs and blows in the autumn wind. Johnsy is seized in her feverish state by the notion that when the last leaf falls from that vine, she will die, too. Mr. Behrman grumbles to her about the absurdity of her thoughts. But each morning she counts the leaves; each morning she gets sicker and more obsessed by doom. The doctor says only hope will make Johnsy better.
Being Great: Mr. Behrman’s Masterpiece
Then one morning there is only one leaf left. But amazingly, it is there the next day, despite the wind and rain. it’s there the next day and the day after that. Johnsy starts to turn the corner, and the doctor says she will live. Sue finally tells her that Mr. Behrman had died that day before from the pneumonia he contracted when he spent hours outside her window painting a leaf onto the brick wall after the last leaf fell. After a life of artistic failures, it was Mr. Behrman’s Masterpiece.
Act into New Ways of Thinking – and Greatness
That’s the thing about us humans. We know we need to change, and we often talk a good game. But only one thing causes a transformation. As psychologist Erich Fromm once said: “People never think their way into new ways of acting, they always act their way into new ways of thinking.” We learn that the key to our greatness becomes visible to us once we realize we act in service to one another, we can make the journey from inertia and skepticism to really changing the world for others.
So come this Jazz Sunday as we listen to the apostles bicker about who is greatest, and find out how Jesus settles the argument.