The Jonah Complex

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’s why most people shed their wings and prefer to walk and obey the law.” (Herman Hesse, Demian )

The twentieth-century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, was convinced that within us all exists an impulse to achieve greatness and a desire to move toward what he called our “highest possibilities”.

Few among us achieve anything of great worth. While there are various reason for this, one of them, according to Maslow, is that we simply 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 there 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 upon him by god.

What is the driving force behind this psychological fear? How can we overcome it?

In his book, Art, and Artist, Otto Rank agreed that human beings are driven by two fundamental fears; Fear of Death and Fear of Life. The former, according to Rank, is not merely a fear of our physical extinction.

We also fear a form of psychological death, which occurs when we conform so fully to societal norms that we lose our individuality. Rank describes this fear as one that propels us to differentiate ourselves by actualizing our potentials that 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 is this fear of standing alone that Rank characterized as, The Fear of Life.

This fear, Rank argued, drives us to reestablish a greater connection with society by way of conformity and reject much of what makes us unique.

This 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, the ind visual 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, daring to be different than we are of relinquishing our individuality. This analysis of Rank’s argument suggests at its root our fear of greatness is a fear of life. A fear of standing alone and a fear of separating ourselves from the masses.

For as Frederic Nietzsche oftener likes to remark:

“The concept of greatness entails.. being able to de different. (Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil)

However, a fear of life isn’t all that is inhibiting us from actualizing our potential.

Colin Wilson, a prolific writer on the matter in the twentieth 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 the twentieth century thought was dominated by what he called,”the unheroic hypothesis”. Which he defined as, “the sense of defeat, or disaster, or futility, that seemed to underlie so much of modern writing. (Colin Wilson, The Age of Defeat) . In answering the proverbial question, Is man more akin to a god or a worm? Wilson thought that the modern world instilled in the individual that we are much closer to the worm, thus helping explain the average tendencies to expect a life far below their potential.

Abraham Maslow, a friend to Wilson, 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 undoing so 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 you life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.” ( Abraham Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature)

Maslow thought the anxiety displayed. Y his students were the result of an inability to fathom the god-like possibilities within ya for too long. Without succumbing to the fear that such arrogance could lead to unhealthy dilutions of grandeur. As a result of this fear, people tended to the opposite extreme and view themselves as more analogous to that of 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 that we find the “Golden Mean” or middle way. To overcome our fear of greatness, we must learn to move bodily toward 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 m, sinful pride, hubris. There are people who cannot manage that graceful integration between 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 arrogance without the humility, then you are in fact [delusional]. You must be aware not only of the god-like 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 Further Reaches of Human Nature)



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