I was thumbing through the remarkable observations set down by Nicolaus Copernicus in his book On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres in the 1400s. You may recall that Copernicus abandoned the long-held Ptolemaic system, where the Earth was seen as being fixed in the center of the universe (geocentric) in favor of his mathematical proof that it in fact moved around the sun (heliocentric).
What stands out to me is not so much the brilliance of the proof of his hypothesis, but the internal struggle he faced in its publication and the eloquence of his presentation. Copernicus, a canonist and physician, studied the heavens in his evening hours. The more he studied the more he realized that the current and longstanding understanding of the universe was not only flawed, but in fact, was fundamentally wrong.
His friends and supporters convinced him to overcome his reluctance to share his discoveries, even though they flew in the face of millenia of dogma and tradition. He realized that there would be as much reaction as interest and wisely chose to dedicate his book to the powerful Pope Paul III, who was known for his love of letters and mathematics.
In the “Preface and Dedication to Pope Paul III” Copernicus wrote:
I can reckon easily enough, Most Holy Father, that as soon as certain people learn that in these books of mine which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the world I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage. For my own works do not please me so much that I do not weigh what judgments others will pronounce concerning them. And although I realize that the conceptions of a philosopher are placed beyond the judgment of the crowd, because it is his loving duty to search the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason; nevertheless I think we should avoid opinions utterly foreign to rightness. And when I considered how absurd this “lecture” would be held by those who know that the opinion that the Earth rests immovable in the middle of the heavens as if their centre had been confirmed by the judgments of many ages – if I were to assert the contrary that the Earth moves; for a long time I was in great difficulty as to whether I should bring to light my commentaries written to demonstrate the Earth’s movement, or whether it would not be better to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others who used to hand down the mystery of their philosophy not in writing but by word of mouth and only to their relatives or friends…They however seem to me to have done that not, as some judge, out of an unwillingness to communicate their doctrines but in order that things of very great beauty which have been investigated by the loving care of great men should not be scorned by those who find it a bother to expend any great energy on letters – except on the money-making variety – or who are provoked by the exhortations and examples of others to the liberal study of philosophy but on account of their natural stupidity hold the position among philosophers that drones hold among bees. Therefore, when I weighed these things in my mind, the scorn which I had to fear on account of newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken.
I wonder how many great discoveries, realizations, ideas and thoughts have been lost due to the failure to overcome this very fear. Fear of a successful outcome can be as paralyzing as fear of failure or disapproval, and far too many expressions of genius are stopped at the gates by the sentries of fear and doubt.
Mediocrity tends to be the norm and greatness is the exception, but not for a lack of potential. A great challenge of the educational system of our youth lies in the balancing of the desire to impart certain universal fundamentals (which change over time and vary between societies) with the encouragement or drawing forth the unique expression of genius in each one. In many cases, an over-emphasis on the former obstructs sufficient nurturing of the latter.
There is greatness in everyone you meet. It may be present and visible on the surface or it may be buried deep down. Regardless of its place of habitation, you have the opportunity to inspire greatness in others. So often people are obsessed with finding the way to express their genius – artists, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, mothers, fathers, etc. – but the truth is that the balanced revelation of genius through you is made possible as you draw it forth from those around you.
You never know how much the world is affected by you playing your part in the natural expression of genius in life. While many have hidden behind impotent conviction: “what can one person do,” few have dared to overcome it in their living. The few who have are the few who have had tremendous influence on the world around them. Copernicus, Lincoln, Angelou, Poitier, Grandin, Wordsworth, FDR and hopefully…you!
Dare to make a difference!