Truly Great

I read this morning in the Toronto Star that Garth Drabinsky was stripped of his Order of Canada.This followed an article in the same paper less than two months ago announcing the recipients of the 2012 Order of Canada, which will be handed out in the coming months.Yet all the discussion at my office, and even the lawyers’ lounges and professional offices I have attended this week centers around last Sunday’s Oscars. As anyone who knows me is well aware, perhaps my biggest pet peeve is our obsession with celebrity for celebrity’s sake.


My thoughts on this subject go back at least to 2004, when my Rabbi, Lawrence Englander, was awarded the Order of Canada for his 30 years of community service. His investiture into the Order of Canada recognized that over the course of more than three decades, his leadership and vision at Solel Congregation in Mississauga helped to create, among other things, a food bank which feeds over 5000 people a month, a housing project for the poor, and breakfast programs for financially disadvantaged children. In addition, he has galvanized his congregants to action in the social, cultural, charitable and political fabric of our society. I often cite him as an example of a true greatness and exactly the type of person who ought to receive these awards and the accolades of our community. The vast majority of those granted such an honour as the Order of Canada or the recent Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medals fit the same mold as Rabbi Englander.


I have over the years watched these Order of Canada ceremonies on local cable when the Governor General hands out the highest award this country can bestow upon a citizen. I have studied the details of the recipients each year when the announcements are made. These men and women, from all parts of the country, of all races and religions, have little in common with one another except for their remarkable achievements. Throughout their careers and their lives, they have made their communities, and the country, better places. They have impacted their respective professions, discovered and created, been shepherds, teachers, and beacons.


But what is truly remarkable about this year’s group of recipients (and of all years in fact) is their very ordinariness. They are not glamorous, many are not wealthy, and none of them are particularly famous by contemporary standards. They are ordinary people doing ordinary things in an extraordinary fashion. If it were up to me, the study of the lives of these individuals or at least viewing the video of the ceremonies each year would be mandatory in all schools. Why? Because in our celebrity-obsessed culture, where fame is based not on merit, but merely on wealth, glamour, or simply being famous, our children should be required to study real greatness- not in some historical context during a course but in a real life way that they can understand. It would be ideal if the one obligation that was attached to being awarded the Order of Canada would be to speak to at least one group of school children. Our children need to understand that real greatness is not found in  people who play sports for a living, or act or sing or appear in gossip pages or worse, reality tv shows. Which is not to say that none of those famous actors/musicians/athletes use their positions to make society a better place (the concept of what in Hebrew we call Tikun Olam) but even when they do, I would argue their exalted wealth and fame demands it from them and they do not necessarily deserve special praise for doing what they ought to be doing anyway. So many of these athletes and entertainers never miss an opportunity to quote the Bible or praise their God yet simultaneously forget the biblical commandment “from each according to his means to each according to his need”. My comments are not meant to detract from the very real physical gifts which bless our athletes and entertainers. Some are indeed very talented at what they do (although more are merely mediocre despite their overwhelming fame). But even the best are not great. We tend too often to confuse fame with greatness. We ascribe great personal characteristics and imbue people with a humanity and intelligence undeserved merely because they stare back at us from our media on a daily basis. All the while we ignore the real greats because they’re not part of the celebrity-industrial complex.


I find it distressing that the average child will, if asked, choose as a role model a Tom Brady, or a Justin Bieber, or a Kardashian of one sort or another. It reminds me of the comedian Robin Williams’ comment about some of the first FOX TV reality shows of the 90s: “it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there”. While our professional sports role models are clearly the best at what they do, and while most of our other acting or singing celebrities have at least a modicum of talent, they have in most instances done nothing to deserve this hero worship we foist upon them.


Yet we have become so enamored with the rich and famous that we forget all those who are really changing the world. Our collective apathy for the world around us has made election turnouts lower than ever before, made it more difficult than at any other time for charitable organizations to raise funds or attract volunteers, and has even made us less civilized (ruder and more impatient) in our day to day interactions with strangers. This selfishness has allowed us to forget that if we spent a little less time worshipping celebrities and a little more time improving ourselves in our own small ways, as spouses, parents, children, friends and citizens, we could make a real impact on those around us, and just maybe in the process leave a mark other than the indentation on our sofa.


I am reminded as I write this that the former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson concluded the Order of Canada ceremonies some years ago with a particularly poignant quote from Aristotle on this exact topic: “Dignity is not in possessing honors, but in deserving them”.