I finished watching the 3-part mini-series Grant, about former President and Civil War General, Ulysses S Grant, last night on the history channel. It is hard not to reflect on this documentary without comparing and contrasting it to The Last Dance and Lance, documentaries playing on ESPN this month.
Just prior to his death in 1885 from cancer, Grant received a letter from a confederate soldier who was at Appomattox at the conclusion of the Civil War. It was apparent that this soldier was deeply and forever impacted by the class, the compassion, the understanding, the humility that Grant displayed to the defeated when accepting the surrender of Robert E. Lee. This soldier called him a “magnanimous soul”. It is such a great expression. Magnanimous meaning, generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or less powerful person.
That was not the first time Grant’s character shone through. He was not born into aristocracy like his counterpart Robert E. Lee. Grant lived a “hard scrabble” life growing up which helped develop a level of compassion through the rough edges of his upbringing. As a dirt-poor married man, he gave a slave his freedom rather than selling him for a thousand dollars. As President, he risked his presidency and re-election by going all in on reconstruction and defeating the KKK. His demeanor was sometimes course, his methods were unorthodox, but his cause was always noble, his vision was always pure. He never cared what others thought of him. He knew who he was, and when you do, magnanimity is not so scary.
Grant was one of the best generals in the history of our country. But he reached his greatness as a man through his understanding of the meaning of his victory. His knew that the victory was not his and his alone, but ultimately it was the country’s victory, and the defeated soldiers would be part of that country reestablishing itself after the war. It appears that who Grant was as a man transcended his victories on the battlefield, and his accomplishments as President.
Isn’t that what we should all strive for. Most people spend their lives trying to achieve great things, whether in sports, business, politics, money. Don’t get me wrong, we should compete. We should all strive to win. But success and accomplishment in and of itself do not mean greatness. I was wondering, in all of our competition, trying to be the best in all of our chosen professions, our pursuits of wealth and recognition, does anyone compete to be the most magnanimous? Do we even care who is?
Isn’t being called a “magnanimous soul” much greater, much more profound than just being called world champion, world conqueror, richest man in the world. Those titles can be taken away from you. You can be defeated; your accomplishments can be surpassed. But your magnanimous soul can only be given away by you. Jordan and Armstrong traded their magnanimity for victory. Grant, on the other hand, maintained his through victory, and thus was elevated to a stature that the single-minded, win-at-all-cost people can’t even conceptualize.
But in the end, it is who you are as a person, the character you display that will live well beyond the time when our victories have faded into hazy memories and obscurity. And I think moving forward, we should conduct ourselves, approach our lives with that knowledge that ultimately, we will be judged and remember more on who we are than what we do.
What do you want on your headstone? What words would encapsulate your life? “Magnanimous soul” would be very humbling, and the ultimate compliment.