“If you just believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything.” “If you set your mind to it, there’s nothing that you can’t do.” “Nothing is impossible.” These statements sound wonderful and are deeply inspiring, and along with millions of other Americans, I long to wholeheartedly affirm them, but there is just one fundamental problem that keeps me from doing so…the fact that they aren’t true. These very common views represent a core belief/value that is intricately woven into the fabric of our American cultural mythology, that is, the myth of unlimited possibility.
Indeed, one could easily argue that perhaps there may be no other characteristic that more defines our American identity and cultural consciousness. The practical utility of this cultural myth is undeniable; it has certainly served us well historically, in terms of providing an essential foundation for the development of our nation as well as necessary motivation for countless individuals to realize personal goals and ambitions. However, while it can be extremely useful and may to a certain extent even be indispensable to the success of our personal and collective endeavors, the dream of limitless possibilities, although an effective and empowering dream, is still a dream…it isn’t real.
The danger of this illusory dream is that it serves as a denial of our inherent human finitude, of the innate and inescapable limitations within our existence as human beings. The true reality of our human existence is that there will always be things that we cannot do or accomplish regardless of willpower and belief in ourselves, and there are things that really are impossible. We are not infinite, not The Infinite, not Being-itself; we are finite beings that live within a given set of limitations that circumscribe our existence on this planet (Becker, 1973; Kierkegaard, 1849/1980; May, 1981; Tillich, 2000).
However, perhaps we should seriously consider the option, the quite popular and heavily endorsed option, of simply ignoring the truth of the human condition and acting as if all really is possible and we are limitless beings. If this popular myth is so practically useful, indeed if it is so seemingly necessary to the process of our individual and cultural achievements, then why not try to live as if it were true? Even though it is a lie, why not choose to believe the lie, especially when acknowledging the truth can cast such a severe gloom over our hopes and visions, can itself be a tremendous source of harmful limitation? How is this dangerous?
I will confess that in the face of such questions, I am often ready to acquiesce, prepared to concede that believing and living on the basis of the lie really would be better…until I remember why this is so dangerous, the crucial fact that doing so would be a violation of reality, and that health/well-being begins with honestly confronting and accepting reality as it is. Yet, even beyond this rather abstract assertion, believing the lie of unlimited possibility is practically harmful because denying existential limitations involves seriously damaging consequences to our health and well-being.
Ignoring limitations regarding stress and responsibilities that one can handle in particular situations leads to burnout and self-destructive coping strategies. Believing that one should be able to do things one cannot do, or be ready to do certain things when one is not ready to do so, leads to a distorted sense of shame and guilt. Interacting with others as if one is completely responsible for satisfying their needs, for their behavior and its effects, for making their choices and decisions, leads to codependent caretaking. Our limitations often function to protect and keep us safe and we neglect them with a severity of risk that we do not understand.
Our finitude and its manifestation in situational limitations also provide a basis and grounding out of which our freedom can further develop and grow. Limiting prohibitions offer structural boundaries against which our freedom and creative wills can strive to learn, discover, and call forth new possibilities that did not previously exist. Without the confining boundaries of a present context to which we are bound, we would not be able to push beyond them and create a new, different context for finding solutions to our problems and answers to our questions. The ultimate goal is, of course, the Infinite, but we only reach it by transcending our finitude, which is always within us and which we can never completely leave behind. Therefore, paradoxically, the very limitations that seem to threaten our freedom and the finitude that appears to prevent us from experiencing the Infinite are necessary preconditions for the latter’s actualization in our lives (May, 1983).
I am particularly mindful of this paradoxical nature of human finitude as it relates to childhood development and parenting. The statements at the beginning of this post are often made by parents to their children. As loving and caring parents, we encourage our children to believe in themselves, in their unique capabilities. We want them to develop a strong sense of self-confidence upon which they can realize their full potential and become the human beings they are meant to be…and rightly so. I am certainly not suggesting that we should not do this or that we should make a point to tell our children what they cannot do, which tragically occurs all too often in our society.
However, I wonder if we perhaps are doing our children a disservice by dispensing these messages without an appropriate indication of their inherent finitude and the critical necessity of accepting it. It may be that such well-meaning words and messages, which assure us that we are being “good parents,” in fact represent an ill-advised parenting approach that actually undermines our kids’ ability to grow in their freedom, keeping them chained to the ground rather than reaching for the stars.
I was, to some extent, such a child. While my mother did communicate messages regarding certain limitations, she instilled within me from an early age a profoundly strong belief in my unique abilities as well as a special vocational calling. In one way, I am extremely grateful for this. Yet, in another way, I can see that this approach unintentionally and inadvertently set me up to struggle with accepting my innate limitations. Throughout my adult life, I have found it very difficult to cope with limitations, perceived “failures” and mistakes, to reconcile my finitude with a grandiose, inflated, and perhaps even at times delusional sense of my capabilities and importance.
I agonize over this in parenting my own boys—while I desperately want to communicate to them an unconquerable belief and confidence in their unique abilities and potentialities, I just as desperately want them to develop a healthy understanding of and respect for the limitations with which they will have to live, for the finitude that partially defines their existence. I want them to buy into the cultural myth of unlimited possibility, but not completely, recognizing it for what it is when it breaks down.
Perhaps that is what we most need to do for our children—encourage them to live as if they can accomplish anything, as if nothing is impossible, but then help them accept and effectively process when they are unable to do so, and teach them to use their confrontations with finitude as opportunities to challenge and transcend it, further striving for the Infinite. Maybe, in the end, this is also what we most need as adult human beings, to realize that the ground of our finitude is always there but that it doesn’t have to keep us chained down, that it is in actuality the means by which we soar into the Infinite expanse and harness the power of the stars.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The sickness unto death. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original Work Published 1849)
May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
May, R. (1983). The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Tillich, P. (2000). The courage to be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
— Scott Kiser