Circumstance and the Pursuit of Greatness

I am Belle, without the Beast’s captivity to make me great.

That was what I realized on my trip down Solano Ave on my way to the post office. Moms crossed streets with a stroller and a toddler in tow; gaggles of campers in matching fluorescent shirts tricked down the sloping sidewalk like a dropped ice cream cone would on a rare sunny day. I smiled at people I knew tangentially, and waved at the ones I knew would wave back. I swear to you, I could hear it in my head: “Bonjour, good day, how is your family? Bonjour, good day, how is your wife?”

There must be more than this provincial life.

The way that the fairy tale sets up Belle makes you believe that she is destined for greatness. She is the girl who doesn’t fit in, only in a good way, and therefore it is inevitable. But it is not her beauty that makes her great. It is not the love of Gaston that makes her great. It is not even her capability to stray from normal that makes her great. At the end of the day, it is her circumstance that makes her great.

This, of course, is not to say that any girl could achieve greatness if she were only to be held captive in the grandiose castle of the Beast. In fact, most girls would not. What I’m saying is that Belle only becomes great in the eyes of the world when she is thrown into unfavorable circumstances. And if the movie ends before she is captured, she is not the girl who saw beauty in the Beast, or the girl who loved her father unconditionally. She is only the girl with the capability to do so. And to the townspeople, she is the girl who is a bit peculiar, with her nose stuck in a book.

The potential for greatness is often not good enough for the rest of the world, and unless you are one of the mythical people who does not care what the rest of the world thinks, it is not good enough for one’s self, either. Because without the right circumstances, the capability for greatness is simply loneliness. In East of Eden, Samuel Hamilton says it best: “One one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other-cold, lonely greatness.”

I’m not wishing for horrible circumstances to prove my greatness, or even laying claim to the potential to do so. But I do know that my desire for greatness breeds endless attempts at it, and it sure would be nice to know at the end of my life if I was truly not great, or simply lacking a circumstance.

It would be nice to know if I did not learn enough calculus, or if the opportunity to use it simply never presented itself. It would be nice to know if I did not do enough to help people, or if time and space simply prevented a traditional rise to greatness. I’m not looking for world recognition. It often seems that greatness, even in the eyes of one person, is impossible to achieve without a launch pad. The Beast is no more a lover than a means of unveiling Belle’s greatness.

It’s not an unfamiliar tune: it seems more often than not, the greatest writers were troubled, the greatest actors were bullied, and the greatest heroes came from a place of misfortune and oppression.

This isn’t an excuse for a lack of greatness: I truly want to believe the idea that a person creates their own greatness. I just wish that a Disney movie would show me how.

I wish that it would show me how to love unconditionally without a sister with magic ice powers, and how to find adventure even if I wasn’t stuck in a tower for the first sixteen years of my life. I wish it would show me how to transcend stereotypes, even if my classmates aren’t singing the praises (literally) of sticking to the status quo, and how to find happiness, even if I don’t have an evil stepmother. I know it seems paradoxical, but sometimes it seems like greatness if harder to achieve without obstacles to overcome.

Maybe I’m just being whiny and spoiled, but I’m begging you, Disney, someone: show me how.

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One thought on “Circumstance and the Pursuit of Greatness

  1. Dude, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought this. Less eloquently, okay, but still this. We complain so much about how nothing ever happens in Albany, and I feel like that’s also led us to only really know how to live in the status quo and to not really expect greatness, because in stories the conflict comes before the climax. Shakespeare was all like “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” or something like that, but we don’t get to know which one–if any–of those we are. And that’s kind of scary.

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