“The impetus that makes you fly is our great human possession. Everybody has it. It is the feeling of being linked with the roots of power, but one soon becomes afraid of this feeling…That is why most people shed their wings and prefer to walk and obey the law.” (Hermann Hesse, Demian)
The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow was convinced that within us all exists an impulse to achieve greatness and an urge to move toward what he called our “highest possibilities”. Few among us, however, achieve anything of great worth. While there are various reasons for this, one of them according to Maslow, is simply that we fear our greatness more than we desire it.
“We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments…We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves… And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.” (Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)
Maslow called this fear of greatness the Jonah Complex, in reference to the biblical character Jonah who attempted to flee from the fate bestowed on him by God. In this video, we’ll investigate the psychology behind this fear and examine how we can overcome it.
In his book Art and Artist, Otto Rank argued that human beings are driven by two fundamental fears: a fear of death and a fear of life. The fear of death, according to Rank, is not merely a fear of our physical extinction. We also fear a type of psychological death which occurs when we conform so fully with societal norms that we lose our individuality. This fear, according to Rank, motivates us to differentiate ourselves by actualizing the potentials which make us unique. It drives us to “exist” in the Latin sense of the word, that is, “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear”.
Standing out too much, however, can stimulate feelings of loneliness and isolation. The more we individuate, the more we lose the comforting protection of the crowd and it this fear of standing alone which Rank characterized as the fear of life. This fear Rank argued, drives us to re-establish a greater connection with society via conformity and to reject much of what makes us unique. The life of each person alternates between the impulse to individuate driven by the fear of death, and the impulse to conform driven by the fear of life. “Between these two fear possibilities”, he wrote, “…the individual is thrown back and forth all his life.” (Otto Rank, Will Therapy)
For most of us the fear of life predominates over the fear of death. We are more afraid of standing out, of daring to be different, than we are of relinquishing our individuality. This analysis of Rank’s suggests that at its root our fear of greatness is a fear of life – a fear of standing alone and of separating ourselves from the masses. For as Nietzsche so often liked to remark:
“The concept of greatness entails…being able to be different.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)
But the fear of life is not the the only thing inhibiting us from actualizing our potential. Colin Wilson, one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century, suggested that an “insignificance neurosis” permeates modern society, acting as an additional barrier to the cultivation of one’s greatness.
Wilson observed that much of 20th century thought was dominated by what he called “the unheroic hypothesis”, which he defined as “the sense of defeat, or disaster, or futility, that seems to underlie so much modern writing” (Colin Wilson, The Age of Defeat). In answering the age-old question, “is man more akin to a God or a worm?” he thought the modern age instilled in the individual a belief that we are much closer to the worm, thus helping explain the average individual’s tendency to accept a life far below their potential.
Abraham Maslow, a friend Colin Wilson’s, came to very similar conclusions. Maslow made a habit of asking his students who among them would write a great novel, or become a great leader or composer, and discovered that:
“Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing, and squirming until I ask. “If not you, then who else?” Which of course is the truth…If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”(Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)
Maslow thought the anxiety displayed by his students was the result of an inability to fathom the “godlike possibilities” within for too long without succumbing to the legitimate fear that such arrogance could lead to unhealthy delusions of grandeur. As a result of this fear, people tend to the opposite extreme and view themselves as more analogous to a worm, incapable of achieving anything of significance. Maslow, however, believed that both extremes – seeing oneself as a god or a worm – were equally detrimental. He therefore advised we find the “golden mean” or “middle way”. To overcome our fear of greatness, we must learn to move boldly towards our goals, while simultaneously maintaining humility in the awareness that we are all after all “human, all too human”. Or as Maslow explained:
“For some people this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling…are in fact defenses against grandiosity, arrogance, sinful pride, hubris. There are people who cannot manage that graceful integration between the humility and the pride which is absolutely necessary for creative work. To invent or create you must have the “arrogance of creativeness” which so many investigators have noticed. But, of course, if you have only the arrogance without the humility, then you are in fact [delusional]. You must be aware not only of the godlike possibilities within, but also of the existential human limitations….If you can be amused by the worm trying to be god, then in fact you may be able to go on trying and being arrogant without fearing [delusions of grandeur]…This is a good technique.”(Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)