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When Striving for Greatness Costs Us All That Is Good

What the The Greatest Showman tells us about the pursuit of greatness

Published on:
May 1, 2018
Read time:
7 min.
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As some of the last people to see The Greatest Showman, my husband and I finally settled in to watch it at home last weekend. I had heard over and over (and over) how this was everyone’s favorite movie. The soundtrack! The acting! Hugh Jackman! This movie had it all, or so I had heard. 

Call it sleep deprivation from having an infant or staying up late watching too many Chopped marathons, but I saw the movie . . . differently. I found it hard to focus on the soundtrack when I was all too closely identifying with the main character. But not the good, risk-taking, charismatic, over-the-top part of his personality. I kept seeing a bit of my ever-lurking weakness in him. Let me explain. 

What are you willing to give up to get more of something you want?

Jackson’s character is based on the Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Barnum starts his life a poor boy in love with a wealthy girl whose father sees only failure when he looks at Barnum. To summarize it quite simply, Barnum decides to seek fame and fortune to prove to his beloved’s dad—and to the world—that he is no schlub. 

Cue the endless striving. Barnum’s character is always looking to the next big thing, the next huge investment, the next way to make himself known. All the while, his beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters (or should I say, all that really mattered to him) patiently await his return at home.

The underlying tension is that Barnum’s striving seems insatiable; we wonder how far he is willing to go. 

Striving, by definition, means to try hard, to compete, or to struggle vigorously. In our newfound Shark Tank, online-traffic-driven, entrepreneurial world, we have adapted to a new hustling culture where striving to make a name for yourself is highly respected as a lifestyle. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with striving or hustling, but it’s worth asking the question: what are you willing to give up to get more of something you want?

Impressing Mr. Hollywood

If you have been reading the news (or have simply existed) over the past year or so, you know that several high-powered men have lost their power due to serious sexual abuse allegations. With their loss of power came their loss of income, their multi-million-dollar Manhattan townhomes, their marriages—their families.

Makes you wonder what voice in their heads led to their unlimited striving? Was it worth leaving carnage along the way to make a name for themselves that ultimately turned to mud? How many women were abused, how many lives were destroyed because contentment was out of their reach?

Certainly these men didn’t start out their careers with dreams of becoming ruthless. I choose to believe many people—both men and women alike—start their careers with the purest of intentions. Perhaps they were told as a child they had a good voice, or a perfect shot, or a knack for numbers. Then over time, maybe their careers led them into a level of striving they did not originally intend. 

How many women were abused, how many lives were destroyed because contentment was out of their reach?

A modest actress realizes the more skin she shows the more auditions she gets; a little bit of dignity is worth sacrificing for opportunity. A once honest hard-working family man starts to believe the “hype” about himself, leaving his wife and children behind; family can be forgotten for fame. A leader realizes the power they have over their underlings, holding horrifying ultimatums over their heads by threatening their careers; respect is easily replaced when our sights are set on position.

Unbridled striving is messier than it seems. Especially when it’s at the cost of your soul.

Striving for Approval

But the appeal of unending striving isn’t strictly for the rich and famous, or those seeking to be. 

Around a year ago, I was already on a self-induced mission to appear like a thriving family. There were five of us, with one more on the way, and I was committed to maintaining my chill and in-control mom vibe, raising children who were maturing into great kids. The day my fourth baby was born, I pledged that this baby was not going to change that vibe. Wherever we go, I thought to myself, the baby will go. My work will not suffer, my other three children will never feel slighted by the presence of this newborn babe, nor will my husband. In fact, everyone will see me shine in my newfound role of mother of four. 

I recall sitting on my hospital bed the day after Levi was born, emailing a client asking him to send me the next topic for their upcoming post. He responded with sincerest congratulations and then sensitively suggested I get some rest. Instead of feeling reassured, I felt frustrated. His kind response was derailing my plans. 

Striving seems to be motivated by fear.

There was some compulsion that was driving me to not slow down, to lose the weight, to stay on top of my work game, to shine as a mother and a wife Otherwise, well, we may fall apart and everyone who knew me would see it—which of course was my greatest fear. 

Our decision to have a fourth was a bold move, not decided upon lightly. I started the transition to four deeply committed to making sure that, to the outside eye, it always looked like a good idea. I attempted to keep up with everyone around me as though having a new baby didn’t create a completely new dynamic for us. Now, I’m practicing being more aware of and coming to terms with my limitations, but many times in the past year, I forgot what was best for me and my crew.

The Cure for Striving

Striving seems to be motivated by fear. Barnum heard the words of his father-in-law saying he would never be enough—and perhaps his greatest fear was that those words might end up true. 

The Greatest Showman trailer

Like Barnum, we likely all have some kind of inner dialogue that dictates how we manage our lives. What about you? What words do you hear that give your striving permission to pummel anything in it’s way? Have you ever taken the time to consider what good you are willing to give up, or what evil thing you are willing to traffic in, because your striving is insatiable? 

The final scene of The Greatest Showman is a close-up on Barnum’s face; he is sitting snuggled next to his wife at his daughter’s ballet recital after having handed off his responsibilities to his business partner. He stares straight at the camera with only contentment in his eyes. As viewers, we all feel relieved because he finally came back to what mattered most. 

Karen Katulka
Karen is an independent writer and marketing strategist, a mother of four, and a wife to Chris. She holds an undergraduate degree in marketing from the University of Central Florida, and she received a master’s in Christian education with an emphasis in women’s ministry from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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