Contemplating Greatness in Hill Country

travelSri Lanka is the greatest island of its size in the world– Marco Polo said that. He was a great man. I look out the windows of the bouncy train to see foliage crowning granite monoliths that rise a straight thousand feet into rich grey clouds. The orange-dust-lined tea plantations are spangled bright green. Out the left window is a smaller sun-draped hill and below runs a crystalline green river, reflecting black rock upstream. Later, the sun sets behind the tunneled hill as the train chugs over a golden-green valley. Gauzy hills swabbed in the faint yonder. The bobbing eucalyptus makes me feel like a European explorer coming across this exotic land for the first time. And as I exhale the smell of burnt earth, I know languorous Roman trysts and Victorian teatimes and the wind-blown lace curtains of my Brooklyn youth, all from that haystack-golden afternoon light.

My favorite are big cities, places that have always had lots of people. Because over the millennia humans have infused a powerful energy into the land. Watching palms merge into pines in a mile high forest is special too. But it’s light through a different lens. Nature is one, humans another. The light comes in foggier when it’s reflected through someone’s eyes. If you glimpse it you can start to understand, through remembering your own experience. But in nature understanding is impossible. You cannot understand a tree the way you can understand a child’s joy. Only wonder at the sublimity of the eucalyptus. It is easier to wonder than to understand.

I think some are not meant to understand at all. Most. It is easier for the lucky ones, the ones who do glimpse it, to return unto themselves without understanding. It’s hard to look into the light, easier to live within yourself in a shady routine. Because this is easier, it is how most people live their mediocre lives.

If you are mediocre, travel is good. It can remind you of the light outside: the green hills and granite monoliths and beggar’s eyes. Traveling is the opposite of routine; it wakens you to life. Routine is necessary, like money. When you need it, you make it. Also like money, routine infects your perceptions. It is common and easier to discuss the shade of five-star hotels and popular attractions. These experiences seem great but they are really mediocre. And when we guise mediocrity in greatness, it is a mean trick on others. Humans are often mean. Most mediocre people are mean and that is why they are mediocre. But there are many consolations in being mediocre, such as the perennial comforts of love.

Some are capable of being great but that doesn’t mean they will. They may choose not to be great for any number of reasons. Primary among them, love. And that’s okay. Because a life of love is great. It is a sample of the love in every moment everywhere in the world. When you focus your love on one person that makes it harder to see the love everywhere else. You make a routine of love. And that’s okay too, because you’re not being selfish. When the great choose to be great, they are being selfish. They are being great in death, to be remembered. If you choose love, you are choosing a great life (without greatness) and to be forgotten in a hundred years. If you are good and mediocre, it’s honorable.

In the way some people are born monsters, some people are born mediocre. Some are born great, although they may choose not to be. I think you have to keep choosing to be great in the same way you have to keep choosing to do good. For the truly great it is difficult but they choose right each time. They have to. They have to do good and be great because they see light everywhere and they are selfish and want to live in the light. Truly great people know they are insignificant specks. But they also want to be remembered– not for vanity, for the sake of their best possible. That takes time, so they are lonely. To be truly great they have to be good too. They have bad inside them of course, but they choose to override the bad. You can be mean sometimes but you have to know you’re being mean, and then you have to repent in light.

If you are great you can glimpse the light everywhere, all the time, right where you are sitting. It’s hard, but you don’t need travel, only to break from routine every moment. But if you are choosing whether to be great or mediocre, sometimes travel can help. Everything related to living a great life is great, even tiny things must be great. In fact, it is the tininess of all that must be the greatest.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


  1. Hey Daniel,

    Great story -who do you think you are? Mom…..I have an idea, miss you will see all the family at Sarah’s wedding – you will be missed! Luv Ya xo

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