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The Paradox of Greatness

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s simple declaration to do something to make society a little better produced profound change that made the lives of everyone better. This is the paradox of greatness.

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On Friday, the world lost another of its greats. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and champion of human rights, died at 87. Her determined fight to ensure that all people were treated equally and her willingness to powerfully dissent when those rights weren’t being protected turned her into a cultural icon.

Much has been written about her amazing life, in addition to the recent award-winning documentary RBG and the motion picture On the Basis of Sex that chronicled her successful efforts in a landmark gender discrimination case. You likely know that Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class. While in law school, she cared for both her infant daughter and her husband/classmate who was suffering from (and ultimately survived) cancer. Finishing law school at Columbia University, she entered a world that would not hire a woman lawyer, even one who had graduated at the top of her class. She secured a clerkship only because one of her law school professors threatened the judge who begrudgingly hired her, to never send future law school clerks to him if he didn’t. Ultimately, Ginsburg turned her attention to civil rights litigation, using the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to challenge the pervasive and corrosive effects of rampant gender discrimination in this country.

In the 1970s, she won five out of six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, almost single-handedly leveling the legal (if not actual) playing field for women in the United States. This led her to a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and, ultimately, to being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her twenty-seven years on the bench of the highest court in the land deserves its own separate piece, to be sure. Suffice it to say that as a Supreme Court Justice she continued to be an extraordinary and tireless advocate for the rights of all and a fierce dissenter when the court majority refused to protect those rights.

What I find so remarkable about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life is that she never set out to change the world. In her words, she just decided “to do something to make society a little better.” It turns out that this simple declaration produced profound change that made the lives of everyone better. This is the paradox of greatness. It is Mother Teresa saying all over again: “If each of us would just sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” It is Rosa Parks saying a single word – no. It is the quiet, yet fiercely determined courage of John Lewis who refused to stand down because he knew that what he was doing was right. It is the willingness to use your gifts, whatever they are, no matter how big or small, to do something to make the world a little better.

In one of her early Supreme Court Cases, Ginsburg won the case but fell short of the real objective – having the Court decide to make gender a “suspect classification,” which would have afforded women greater protection. She didn’t fret. Rather, she remarked that, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Her groundbreaking decade of litigation in the 1970s was described as “knitting a sweater.” This is what I think made Ginsburg extraordinary. The wisdom to know that she had a gift and to patiently and doggedly apply it. Her commitment to do something to make society a little better was her source of power.

Too often today, I see people struggling to find their purpose. To do something meaningful with their lives. When they do something good, rather than celebrate, they often bemoan the fact that they should be doing more. This constant wanting to do more is often an impediment to action. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt this was true for Ginsburg. I have a hunch that she would have been happy had she simply been a fine lawyer who did good work to help a few people live better lives. That she did so much more is a testament not to an oversized ambition but to a mature recognition that one’s purpose in life is to leave the world a bit better off. Here’s how she described her approach: “[I]f you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is.” [emphasis mine]

If you find yourself frustrated or paralyzed by feeling a need to do more or a need to do something really big, perhaps the life of this extraordinary woman will encourage you to paradoxically think smaller. To do something that leaves the lives of others a little better off. Perhaps it’s as simple as a small act of kindness each day. Or sending postcards to encourage others to vote. Or serving as a role model of virtue each day for your children. Or making a commitment to serve those less fortunate on a regular basis. Or, of course, doing something big. The key is to focus on doing something “outside yourself.” That is what a meaningful life looks like, and it’s the way we can truly honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s incredible legacy.

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