The Greatest Who Lived

My grandfather measured 5 feet 6 inches, with an intellect that stood tall among men. He could fix anything—give him a paperclip and a toothpick and broken faucet could spill forth a stream. I once asked my grandfather if he was fulfilled in his job. He stopped what he was doing, crinkled his nose in gentle annoyance, and said something like this: “Dear, I don’t even really understand the question. I didn’t expect to be fulfilled in my job. My job is what I needed to do to support my family. It’s what I worked hard at, so that I could be fulfilled in the other areas of my life by paying the bills and taking care of the people that meant something to me.” 



He was part of what Tom Brokaw famously called The Greatest Generation, coming of age during The Great Depression. They watched their parents struggle and lose their dreams and their pride. They lived war, lost loved ones,and saw others return with PTSD. They worked to see their country not only survive but prosper again.  


One cannot conclude from their lower divorce rate that more marriages were necessarily healthier, but there was a different understanding of commitment and different expectation of what it meant to carry the responsibility of family. They valued loyalty to employer and job steadiness. There was a widespread expression of faith in God. However, a definition of honor and sense of pride prevented the discussion of experiences of abuse and issues of mental and emotional health.


In recent years, the humanitarian world has been propelled by the younger millennial generation. These men and women are ready and willing to challenge the status quo; they desire to expose injustice wherever it presents. They long for beauty, primarily in apparent forms. Divorce is un-coupling, agreed upon by two people still in love and best friends but who need to explore separate paths.  


According to a Gallup Poll, Millennials are three times more likely than any other generation to have changed jobs this year, a turnover that costs the US economy about 30.5 billion dollars annually. The vast majority, reportedly, are “checked out” and unengaged with their jobs.   


Among their strengths, Millennials are passionate about social justice. They influence their communities and their workplace to be active in global issues. They are aware of tragedies like human trafficking, and they want to personally fight it. They do not accept world poverty as a necessary outcome of humanity. They want to end it. They do not have a lot of money, but they will find creative ways to multiply $10. 


As an international community we are confronting some of the great violations of human rights through modern day slavery, sexual exploitation, war crimes, and the effects of poverty. But we struggle to look upon the reality and bear it when it stands before us. Distanced from a strength and long suffering to bear the brokenness in our day, and ultimately a faith that can both explain that it is wrong and how it is redeemed, we may find what follows will be the smoky evidence of a passionate fire powerfully ignited but that could not be sustained.  

As an international community we are confronting some of the great violations of human rights through modern day slavery, sexual exploitation, war crimes, and the effects of poverty. But we struggle to look upon the reality and bear it when it stands before us. 


A friend recently introduced me to an episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who. The time-traveling doctor meets Vincent Van Gogh, and in an emotionally captivating scene, he takes Vincent to the present and the Van Gogh exhibit at the Muséed’Orsay. Convinced his paintings never amounted to anything, Vincent is stunned to tears to hear the museum curator describe him as “the finest painter of them all…. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…no one had done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange and wild man who roamed the Fields of Provence was not only one of the world’s greatest artists, but one of the greatest men who ever lived.”  


What if we could unite the commitment and resilience of The Greatest Generation with the passion and call for authenticity from the millennial generation? What if we could draw upon extraordinary strength to bear the reality of such tragic corners of humanity? If we could endure through the recognition that our inability to eradicate today is not utter failure but rather the reality of fallen humanity and the call to continue to seek justice, we would be uniquely poised for eternal impact. If we could accept that we may not see that end but recognize that it is a gift from a compassionate God who allows us to be able to use passion and pain to expose the realities of our fallen world. 


Perhaps we could all be part of something both painful and beautiful, both transparent and magnificent. I think it’s called redemption. 

Written by Naomi Zacharias, Director of Wellspring International.

Photograph by Ben May.

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