The Eternal Hell of Personal Potential

When motivation is actually damnation

If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.

— Abraham Maslow

I saw the quote above memed on Instagram by a really great alternative school that I follow online. I’m familiar with the school and respect what they’re doing. So what I’m about to say is no direct smear on them.

As a cultural theologian, I’m being trained to notice signals like this, pluck them out, and toss them down on the examination table for all to gather around and look at. So here we go…

I understand the intention of sharing this quote. It’s supposed to be inspirational. Motivational. A few years ago, I might’ve seen it as such.

It gets the blood pumping, doesn’t it?
Kinda makes you feel like anything is possible.

But now, I see it (and sentiments like it) as nothing less than a death sentence. A curse from our motivational secular ethos as the hyper performancistic/meritocratic culture that we are.

This quote is as legalistic as any Biblical verse I’ve seen, but our secular meritorious culture eats it up.

(Which is weird because I thought we were over the whole dogma/religion thing as a culture. Hmmm… Odd…)

The souls of people— especially kids — are buckling under the weight of the world we’ve created where our core value is based on what we produce and anything short of perfection is seen as abnormal and leads to unhappiness.

Well, it’s correct. Absolutely. Falling short of our capabilities makes us feel abnormal. And it leads to total unhappiness.

The thing is, the sentiment of this quote doesn’t do as it’s intended. It doesn’t push us towards happiness.

As in theology, the law can never produce what it commands. All we can do is fall short of it in despair. The law raises the bar higher and higher and higher.

Living by this law creates a life of utter unhappiness. Yes, you might accomplish a lot. Yes, to an outsider, they might think your life is groovy as hell. You might even trick yourself into believing that living this way is healthy.

But it’s an absolute death sentence.
A damnation.
That’s the purpose of the law,
to damn.

Allow me to inquire — posthumously, of course — to the author of this quote…

So, Abe… What you’re saying is that if I’m not #crushingit in life all the damn time… If I’m not performing at the upper echelon of my capabilities… If I’m not slam dunking life every minute of every day…

Then I’ll be unhappy all the days of my life?

How absurd.


Maybe this little quote wasn’t intended to be taken in a point-blank literal fashion (or was it?). But it echoes a sentiment that’s etched deep within our culture today.

I think it needs to be rooted out, exposed, and exorcised as the demonic statement that it is. (Sorry, Abe.)

Let me stop here and just say this…

If you’re like me, you’ve probably let yourself down more ways than you can count by the time you brushed your teeth this morning.

But you can have joy and release right damn now. This joy isn’t just a little part of who you are that you have to root out through spiritual work. It’s the entire thing as was revealed by the One who died to the law and rose in a Promise.

This is the imputed righteousness of the Christian faith.
This is freedom from the self,
freedom from comparison,
freedom from measurement,
and freedom from the ever-rising bar
of personal potential.

If you place your value on living up to your fullest potential (which, what does that even mean?!), you may as well throw in the towel right now. Unless you’re Michael Jordan — hell, EVEN IF YOU’RE MICHAEL JORDAN — you will always (!!) fall short of your own bar.

Your value IS perfection, but that perfection has nothing to do with anything you’ve done or not done. Said or not said. Thought or not thought.

All the perfection you’ll ever need is based entirely on the fact that you’re breathing right now. This is God’s perfection granted in and as you. From birth. Even though it may not ‘look’ like perfection, it’s promised that it is so.

This is what Jesus came to reveal. This, dear reader, is a total miracle. It’s an absolute gift.

I hope your shoulders relax as you read that as much as they do for me as I write it. I need do nothing for my happiness. All I can do is receive it. And then, it’s impossible to hang onto.

You are the apple of God’s eye. Period. Know it. Receive it. Breathe it in.

Maybe you don’t recognize that yet. Maybe, like me, you forget every single hour of every single day and you need to be reminded frequently. Well, I’m saying it now.

You are complete. The very ground of being itself wants nothing more than for you to know that full stop.

That’s the magic, right there. That’s the Promise that produces good fruit in life.

The bar that we rise higher and higher, particularly after reading so-called inspirational quotes like this, is total bullshit.