If you believe, you can achieve.
Evidently, if you believe hard enough and long enough, you can even fly – that’s what I heard on the radio. Metaphorically, this is encouraging. Practically, it’s still annoyingly impossible, no matter how strongly I imagine myself butterflying above the ground. The kind of advice that tells us we can be anything we want to be is meant to be inspiring, to encourage us to try difficult things, and help us push through to reach our goals even when it’s hard. The slogans sound so great and fit so well in songs and movies and books and memes and posters that it’s easy to overlook that one pesky little drawback of how none of them are true.
It’s really no secret: I can’t be anything I want to be. I will never be five again or win a beauty pageant. Never know what it feels like to be a dolphin. Never swing from webbing in New York like Spider-Man. There’s actually an astonishing number of things I can never be, when it comes right down to brass tacks (and including brass tacks). But that’s not the point, is it? These sayings were never meant to encourage us to become dolphins – they were meant to inspire achievement, to spur us on to greatness. And yet, I am fully aware that no matter how hard and long and deeply I believe, I will never have the voice of Frank Sinatra or handle a soccer ball like Messi. At the risk of being a cultural heretic, I say clearly: I have limitations. I know we’re not supposed to speak of such things. If we do, we’re meant to speak only of breaking them. But as humans, we have limitations that aren’t going away. Even Usain Bolt can’t run as fast as a common warthog. As for me, my eyes aren’t fit for a career as an astronaut, but I don’t feel the loss very often. My grasp of physics rules me out of making any discoveries like Einstein’s, but I’m not losing sleep over it. We’ll get along alright without another Messi or Sinatra, too, which is good news for people like me who are not on track for achieving the massive greatness we’re told to set our sights on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing at all against massive greatness. There are a few people who really do great things that really deserve that level of recognition. There are times when a determination to break barriers has had wonderful results and changed the course of history for the better. But I reject the idea that aiming for impossible goals and achieving them anyway is the only path to a successful and fulfilling life. Some limitations can and should be broken, but as humans we will always have a long list under “can’t”. Is that really so bad? Even if our limitations keep us from recognised greatness, none of them can keep us from what is more important: loving God and others. I don’t have to be an astronaut to know the God who made the stars. I don’t have to be Einstein to love my neighbour as myself. I don’t have to be Messi to kick the soccer ball with my son, or Sinatra to sing show tunes with my daughter. I don’t have to be as fast as a warthog to visit someone in pain. My limitations might frame my life in a way that makes it seem quite small and ordinary, but remember: The greatest masterpiece in the world is a normal looking woman named Mona Lisa, half-smiling out of a surprisingly small frame. I’m not worried about how big or small the frame around my own life is: I’m much more interested in making sure I will live well inside it.