Q: What do people mean when they use the expression: “bigger than myself/themselves.” Sports commentators, for example, say about individual athletes in team sports: “No one player is bigger than the game (football, baseball, etc.) itself.” Or people who justify joining some political crusades say: “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.” The key word here seems to be “bigger.” What gives?
A: Taken literally, the sports commentators are stating the obvious fact that a team sport cannot be played by just one individual. However, the motivation is usually not stating the obvious. The motivation is usually a condemnation of the idea that people have different levels and degrees of ability and effort. Yet they do. If you follow a professional sports team closely, I’m sure you can identify the best and most productive players. They carry the team disproportionately. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise, or to make the issue murky by making such claims as “No one player is bigger than the game.” Another notion being implied here is that the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Well, the combination of many individuals playing to their different levels of ability does lead, in combination, to the sport-as-a-whole, this is true. But we cannot evade the fact that without the presence of individuals (some more than others), there is no team. Sentiments such as those you refer to–in sports, politics or anywhere else–are basically trying to convey that the group is more important than any one individual. Of course, since a group consists of nothing but individuals, who do you think benefits the most–and least–from the presence of this attitude? Clearly, the ones with the most to gain are the less able and less qualified, while the ones with the most to lose are the people who do the most and do it best. If you want to attack the great in favor of the mediocre or the worthless, then that’s your problem. I prefer to praise the best for being the best.