Going into the war, General George B. McClellan seemed like he had it all. He was a battlefield genius, a master of strategy, the Hope of the Union. He was Lincoln’s top man, entrusted with one of the most well trained armies in the history of war. And he was expected to do great things.
McClellan had the makings of the hero. He was born with the mind, and outfitted with the cape. And, with the start of the Civil War, he was given what many with the makeup of a hero work for all their lives: a chance to prove himself.
There was a problem with this hero in the making McClellan, though. He was brilliant, yes, but also paranoid. He was strategic, but also a coward. He was a wartime expert, but also a fool. McClellan loved, more than anything else, the assurance of victory, and he would not go into battle without it.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Over and over again, McClellan had the chance to attack the Confederate troops. His soldiers outnumbered the opposition by thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. But McClellan was sure he couldn’t win, sure he was outnumbered, sure his army was not ready to fight. And so, rather than attack when the time was right, McClellan waited and sent for more troops.
And so, as the South won battles and defended their land, McClellan hid behind his hedge of protection. Nothing could convince him of his ability, power, or likelihood of victory. He was not completely certain, and so he refused to act at all.
The man with the makings of a hero went down in history as a coward and a fool. The man with the brilliant mind and an army at his fingertips will forever be known as the man who would not act, and whose passivity may have helped to prolong what was the bloodiest war in American history. The man who would not fail and the man who could not fight, lost too deep in his hedge of protection.
I’d like to look down at McClellan. I’d like to roll my eyes at him and dismiss him, to write him off as a man with too much brain and not enough brawn. I’d like to throw him in with the pile of other Almosts, who really could have been something. And then I’d like to forget about him.
The problem is that when I look at McClellan, I don’t just see him, but a mirror of a thousand others like him. An army in itself, where each person is exceptionally and incredibly gifted, and everyone but them can see it. Rather than try and risk failing, they’ve built a hedge of protection for themselves, neatly trimmed bushes of what is easy and sure.
These McClellans have the talent. They have the gifts, the abilities, the personalities, and perhaps even the dreams, somewhere deep inside there. But they are too afraid to use them and too unsure of their own influence. So instead, they spend their lives building and trimming hedges of things that are easy, thinking their cowardice will affect only them. The hedges of protection keep them from stepping out, from being vulnerable, from exposure to failure or ridicule. And the hedges, though beautifully designed and safe, act as prisons and cages to lock away a hero and forever make him an Almos
What marks the difference between someone good and someone great? Surely it is not just talent, for I have met a hundred talented people neither famous nor in power. I’ve met a good deal many more too talented for their own good, and it’s all gone into decorating those hedges with shapes and detailing.
More than that, what if you are a McClellan? What if I am? What if we discard ourselves as weak or average, when we are really something brilliant or fearfully courageous, a hero who has chosen instead to garden what is easy to grow? What if we are greater than our risk, greater than the opposition? What if each of us, deep inside, harbors a small flame ready to explode into a firework at any time, just waiting for the dynamite lying just outside of our walls of botanical safety?
It’s easy to say that we’re not. It’s easy to look at a decision or a risk and say that we’ll never make it work. We’ll never get into that grad school, we’ll never get that job, we’ll never broadcast for the evening news. It’s easier to say we’ll never attain the dream than to land on our bellies after falling from the jump.
And maybe we won’t. Maybe the jump is too high. Maybe we aren’t brilliant, or talented, or capable of changing the world.
But maybe we are.
And if we keep holding so tightly to these pruning scissors, how will we ever know?