I only recently became familiar with many of the finer points of the life of Muhammad Ali, that great mass of athletic and spiritual energy whose boxing prime had already passed by the time I was born. Several weeks ago I happened upon a few Ali books while browsing at a local library, and by the time I finished my first read about the Great Champ, I wanted to know more about the man whose picture hung in both American man caves and African huts. I moved on to a second book about Ali, one that coupled his life’s trajectory with that of broadcasting Zeus Howard Cosell, and I ordered a third book about the floating-and-stinging mahatma through interlibrary loan.
Last Friday, the day after picking up that reserved book at the library, I saw news that Muhammad Ali had died. Just as my interest in the Greatest of All Times was beginning, his soul was moving on to an eternal place that would finally—probably—render him speechless with its long-anticipated beauty.
Something about Ali’s personality and approach to living had been mystical, able to captivate so many millions of people from so many different backgrounds over the course of so many decades. I wondered, What was it about him that had enthralled presidents, kings, and the world’s media elite? What did he have deep inside of him that had encouraged such a great life to unfold?
Over the course of the past couple of years I’ve read (and listened to) a lot of biographies and memoirs that have given me windows into the minds of people who’ve lived great lives. In my quest to find some missing pieces to the formula for my own large life, I’ve peeked inside the alchemic makeups of notables such as Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson, Russel Brand, Patrick Swayze, John Lennon, Graham Nash, Rob Lowe, Rick James, Sting, Michael Jackson, and Jerry Seinfeld. So what sort of mystic potions did these great artists and entertainers have coursing through their arteries? Were all of these men great, or were some of them simply bags of pop-culture glitter whose “contributions” to society were puddle deep but financially lucrative?
In the wake of Muhammad Ali’s recent death, we can ask what sort of cosmic recipe for greatness he possessed, and we can also wonder if his contributions to the world can really be labelled as great in the first place. Since so many people started eulogizing Ali as a sort of deity long before his passing, any current examination of the man should probably pause to analyze those claims of greatness in order to avoid devolving into bandwagon material.
So was Ali great? I say yes, and I say that his contributions to the world were noteworthy because they possessed large emotional and spiritual components. His brash endurance and courage allowed so many people to believe that great things could happen with a strong belief in self, and he also showed people—especially later in life—how strong the staying power of a deep soul could be. Had Ali only been concerned with boxing records and bank accounts, he probably would have given up on life long before June of 2016. As it turned out, he kept joking and playing and praying until the age of 74, a lifespan that is almost inconceivable given the amount of trauma that boxing and Parkinson’s had dealt to his brain.
Part of the secret to living a truly great life—one that has meaning to both oneself and to humanity at large—seems to reside in the idea of “soulfulness,” that charismatic and entrancing sense of humanity and deeper purpose that an individual can choose to bring to his or her daily life. I say choose, because even though I believe that we are all born with a deeply rooted knowledge that life is something inherently soulful, some of us choose to make it more of a surface-level affair as we get older because we get afraid of risks and rejections. We get timid or we get lazy. We stop listening to the orations of our own souls.
All of the famous men named above chose to listen to their artistic desires and inner poets. They chose to live passionately. All of the men named above refused to believe that life was something meant to be ordinary, even though some of them might have had parents or others in their lives who suggested they should choose practicality over music, comedy, or acting.
Now some of the legends and pseudo-legends I’ve read about recently seemed to have had a more complete sense of soulfulness than others. Johnny Carson, for example, seemed utterly devoid of much greater humanity. He treated others poorly, often seemed overly concerned with wealth and status, and didn’t seem convinced that there was any greater spiritual picture being painted by the daily activities of himself and the world around him. However, I still believe he contributed to humanity by refusing to allow his own emotional struggles or insecurities to mute his unique comedic offerings. He still gave something to people, and a life such as his can still offer us nuggets of inspiration.
We can and should admire Johnny Carson’s professional determination and breakneck wit, but as is the case with the lives of many pop-culture icons (and politicians), Johnny Carson’s capacity to inspire is severely limited by his lack of soulful depth. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, always seemed to be overflowing with deep rivers of soulfulness—even as he spouted hateful race rhetoric with the Black Muslims early on in his career, and even as his life continued to revolve around a sport built upon the quest to induce brain injury (knockouts) in other men.
Muhammad Ali always seemed to have had an eye on life’s bigger picture, which meant that he understood how much he meant to other people and as a result made himself available to them. The thing that strikes me the most about Ali as I read accounts of his life is this: he always spoke his mind—rarely pandered—and yet he was still able to become a hero across lines. Christians, Muslims, Americans, Europeans, Africans, white and skinny, black and muscled, old and infirm, conservative, liberal: It doesn’t seem to matter.
Ali had and still has disciples in every corner, because even when the words leaving his mouth swarmed into divisive sentences, the childlike glimmer of his playful nature spoke of inclusiveness. And even though he pummeled men for a living, he always seemed to respect the sanctity of life (especially if one believes that his anti-war stances came mostly from his own heart, a heart that always seemed to bleed a bit for underdogs and hurting people across the world).
Ali made (and lost) a lot of money, but he never seemed overly concerned with possessions. Especially as he got older and sicker, he seemed to hear spiritual whisperings all around him, and he talked often about the need to get right with God and the need to do good to others. As seems to be the case with many of the men and women who make indelible marks on the world, Ali understood that life was meant to be something extraordinary and passionate. However, in contrast to some of the other famous entertainers I’ve read about recently, he also seemed intelligently aware of a spiritual thread running through himself and through everyone else in the world—a thread that connects us all to each other and ultimately offers meaning to the relatively short lifespans we spend boxing, making movies, making pop songs, holding elections, holding wars, and writing about it all.
So what have I learned by reading about Ali and those other bright stars? What have I learned by casually analyzing the lives of men who have fought Joe Frazier, acted in Tommy Boy, invented the moonwalk, become Superman, become Teen Wolf, written “Imagine,” turned the N-word into raw poetry, wore Ronald-Reagan masks in the original Point Break, and performed “Super Freak”? I’ve learned that you are them and so am I.
I’ve learned that there is no one whose life is free from emotional obstacles such as anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. I’ve learned that there is no one who doesn’t have challenging personal, medical, or family issues to deal with, and there is no successful person who hasn’t experienced a variety of failures and setbacks. Life is something complex and gritty that can either inspire us or defeat us, and we can choose which way we go on that. We can choose to embrace the things inside of us that are unique and influential, or we can, in the face of self-doubt, rejection, or cruel criticism, choose to let those things burn out like the last embers of a forgotten campfire.
I believe that everyone reading this has the capacity to do something noteworthy and inspiring with their lives. Unfortunately, each of us also has the capacity to choose a quiet life of mediocrity or an angry life that divides us from our neighbors instead of a playful life that unites us to them. I have the capacity to be great and so do you, but we can each only be great as ourselves, and we can each only be truly great when we keep an eye on our life’s bigger picture. Professional drive, athletic talent, razor-sharp wit, or having a way with money will never be enough to get a person into the category of greatness. That takes soulful living, which is a tireless pumping of the singular heart that refuses to see life as simply a quest for trophies and money piles.
Muhammad Ali thought he was pretty special, and he was. However, each of us is special and more of us need to be okay with believing in our inimitable worth on a daily basis. If today you choose to live in a more soulful manner that trumpets your unique character and refuses to believe that you are ordinary, what might your life look like in a year or two? In the year 1942, who could have guessed what the life of little Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky would look like by the turn of the millennium? Who would have guessed that the world would pause to eulogize him in 2016? Who would have guessed that he would become the Greatest of All Times and more?