I just read a post which I both like and feel deeply uneasy about.
I really respect and admire the consistent optimism and hope in this blog, and indeed have read things which have helped me, which I have passed to friends. This is not an attack on the blog, which I follow with interest.
For those who don’t want to have to read it – the message is essentially “the only limit in your life is your self-belief”.
At first this seems inarguable. It’s a very common message these days and to contradict it seems negative and cynical. Yet I feel it’s important to find a middle path. We are not as limited as we often believe, but nor can we be anything we want.
For an obvious illustration, if you want to be a mass murderer things will not go well for you. This is not a healthy dream, and the ‘be all you can be’ message suddenly sounds entirely inappropriate!
On the one hand it IS up to us – no one will fix our life for us. Yes we must believe and push and can achieve great things. But it is important to acknowledge several dangers. Not everyone can achieve everything, and they should not necessarily try. This ‘you can be anything’ philosophy is worthy but potentially disastrous.
Let’s pretend the world is a chess game. Then it’s no good wanting to be a ‘diagonal knight’, or a King Prawn… I mean Pawn! Maybe you can invent a piece, but be prepared for the other players to fight you all the way – they like chess the way it is – especially the Kings and Queens who have power to fight for (and with).
Without rules there’s no game, but rules are also limits, and in fact limits are fine, healthy and enabling things. With infinite choice one will get stuck in indecision – should I study geology, maths, web-design, writing, art, history. I choose English. Should I study modernism, renaissance, poetry, theory. I choose poetry. War poetry, international, modern? Writing it, reading it, criticising it? and on and on.
One can also feel a failure. Yes I’m a doctor, but I’m not an airline pilot, or astronaut, or television celebrity physicist. There’s always someone or something there to make us feel inadequate… that is, if we forget what we truly value.
I read recently (can’t remember where) that if you go to a shop which has three chocolate bars, you will buy one and leave happy. If the shop has 200 chocolate bars you will buy one and leave feeling disappointed – there are so many more bars you don’t have than the paltry one you do. It’s true – I can see this in myself and my kids.
Not everything is possible, it cannot be, so when ‘being all we can be’, we also have to bear some things in mind.
Goals must be realistic.
If I determine tomorrow that I will go to the moon, I will fail. Then I might get down about being a failure. I’m not a failure, I just picked a silly dream.
Goals must be appropriate.
We can tend to measure our worth by our success, but what is worth, and what is success? For some worth is wages, worth is having the house, car and lifestyle, so success is materialistic. For others worth is good friends and a loving partner, so success is more about the heart.
Before we rush out to achieve, its vital that we understand ourselves well enough to rush in the right direction!
There is a tendency for people to sell this idea that the only reason we have not ‘succeeded’ is because we haven’t tried hard enough, we haven’t ‘been all we can be’. This is so damaging to people who live lives of disadvantage, poverty, lack of social mobility etc. They may not ‘succeed’ because no amount of trying may be enough.
The ‘be all you can’ notion is symptomatic of a modern, corrosive individualism. In fact, for each person to be able to ‘be all they can be’ requires that everyone works together to enable the paths to success, to create cultures and societies of opportunity for all.
We do not presently have a wider culture of opportunity. There are a handful of people who have ‘come from the ghetto’, but they are a tiny number of exceptions despite the massive media coverage they generate – a coverage which is intended to reinforce the very myth of equality of opportunity.
In this culture, what is often required is to look inward and ask what ‘success’ is for, why is it wanted? Then see how that success might be achieved in a realistic framework. I want the moon so the world see’s me as a hero. So instead I work in a soup kitchen so my community see me as a good man – and what do you know, that works.
Be all you can be – but be so in this world, not in a fantasy of infinite possibility. Be all you can be, but don’t let your dreams be defined by what other people think qualifies as worthy. Be all you can be, but be so from an honest heart, let love and not need drive you and don’t forget to help others be all they can be too.