Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

Jessica Grogan Ph.D.

Encountering America

The Burden of Our Potential

Our potential for self-actualization is equal parts blessing and burden.

Posted May 22, 2013

In a recent interview, writer Emily Rapp speaks eloquently about the death of her son Ronan from among the most awful diseases imaginable (Tay Sachs). He was diagnosed at 9 months, ravaged by the disease for 2 years, and died just before his third birthday.

Among all the stunning and thought-provoking things she says, I am struck most by the way she positions Ronan with respect to the idea of self-actualization (and the idea that we are all innately driven to grow, and to reach our full potential). She writes:

There is the Aristotelian teleological principle that uses the image of an acorn growing into a tree, and that life is about actualizing the growth potential present in that acorn, letting it become something else. Ronan never had a chance to “become” anything except sick, honestly. He never had a chance; from the very beginning, his brain and body were compromised, so that unraveling was kind of like Aristotle’s principle in reverse, which is terrifying, but also liberating. Think of how much we stress about living up to our “potential,” and how it creates anxiety and terror in people; in short, stops them from living their life as fully as they might out of fear and self-loathing. What a liberation to be free of that, but of course Ronan paid the ultimate cost for that freedom (Ward & Rapp, 2013).

We don’t often talk about our drive to improve as our burden. But certainly we know the unrelenting sense of pressure it creates. Much of our unhappiness, in fact, seems to stem from disappointment with ourselves and frustration with our limits. As Rapp suggess, there’s a certain peace in being free from that drive, but also, a real tragedy in missing out on that possibility.

Rollo May talks about existential anxiety as an inextricable feature of human existence. He credits it with our greatest accomplishments and joys, in so far as it demands of us constant vigiliance and relentless effort to improve. But it exists because of tension—because of our precarious position between birth and death, and because of the uncertainty that accompanies mortality.

The certainty of an endpoint is likely to inspire something categorically different from the anxiety produced by the burden of striving for, or failing to meet, our potential. As Rapp tells it, “For Ronan, there was no sense to be made, no change to seek out, no potential to actualize.” In this, it might make sense to separate anxiety from terror. Anxiety is more a feature of possibility, while terror is more a feature of its absence. Anxiety, like self-actualizing, is a burden and a blessing. As Kierkegaard describes it, it’s the dizziness of freedom.


May, R. (1950). The Meaning of Anxiety. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rapp, E. (2013). The Still Point of the Turning World. New York: Penguin.

Ward, A. E. (Interviewer) & Rapp, E. (Interviewee). (2013). The Sunday rumpus interview: Emily Rapp. Retrieved from The Rumpus Web site