I’m going to be playful in this post, but before I begin I want to say that as I write it, I am still mindful of the terrible Costa Concordia accident and the lives lost there.
My student’s sentence is somewhat awkward and probably not really exactly what he meant to say, but I think he’s put his finger on something nevertheless.
Hubris is a terrible thing, and it is waiting at every turn. Especially at the moment that we think “Well, this is the greatest thing I have ever done,” or “This is my best accomplishment,” or “Look how terrific I am,” we invite it to pounce on us and pound us on our impressive backs, shouting not “pretty good for a human being” but “You Are A God!” Thus the “people” in this sentence, who assume that a comparable (“greatest”) is the same as an absolute (“indestructible”).
My student knows more than they knew: he knows the “so far” part. The best so far isn’t the same as the best possible. My sister’s lurching baby toddle, immortalized on film to her great adult chagrin, was the best walking she had achieved so far. She was better at it even the very next day: We know this because we have all lurched and toddled, and then caught up to our feet, found our center, and gotten the walking thing right; some of us have even become ballerinas or marathon runners…who every day strive to do the best they have done so far.
Icebergs, rocks, vanity: all can bring down our towering achievements. Knowing that makes them all the lovelier, but should not make us believe the hubristic voice that urges us to think nothing can surpass them, or defeat them. When such thinking takes us over in an individual endeavor, perhaps we set only ourselves up for disaster; but those who make decisions on which multiple lives depend had better remember their own humanity, which ought to resemble humility in more than a few letters.