By Raquel Sequeira, TD ’21. Raquel is majoring in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry.
I do not have imposter syndrome. When faced with a peer’s superior achievement or quicker intellect, a simpering voice in my mind rises to displace the stirring jealousy. “Remember,” it always whispers, “you are special.” It doesn’t tell me why I am special or what special internal quality transcends my external mediocrity. Still, whenever I examine the roots of motivations and my self-worth, I find this vague notion of a unique destiny that sets me apart. My deepest desire is to achieve that destiny, the greatness I feel sure I was born to achieve. My deepest fear, barely silenced by the whispering voice within, is that I really am not special at all.
I suspect that mine is not a universal response to feelings of inadequacy. Nevertheless, many of us, perhaps especially when we feel inadequate, harbor a longing for “greatness” in some area we are passionate about. “Greatness” is the goal, the distant mountain peak that we strive for, and which we are capable of reaching because of some “greatness” already within us–or so we hope. The greatness we desire, the peak we pursue, may be admirable. A scientist wants to believe that her research will eventually contribute to medical advancements that will save countless lives. A student agonizes over choosing a major that will prepare him to “make a difference in the world”. We want the significance of our lives to extend beyond ourselves—a seemingly selfless desire that nevertheless creates self-conscious anxiety.
Many of my friends and I worry to the point of obsession about what we will do after we graduate. We look on our four years at Yale as a precious chance to find a niche in this enormous world where we can maximize our skills and passions. As it happens, resource optimization is a Christian virtue as much as a capitalist one: through a story often called “The Parable of the Talents” (a fittingly-named ancient currency), Jesus illustrated the duty to actively invest one’s economic and human capital to get a return (Matthew 25, Luke 19). However, the desire to maximize the investments made in me—by my parents, by society, by God—becomes a crippling anxiety when I acknowledge the hugeness of that investment. The thought of my Yale tuition alone makes me feel guilty for the time I spend on courses and extracurriculars I know I will never excel in. Whether or not I am destined for greatness, I owe it.
But is that greatness inherent inside of me, like a sculpture latent in a stone, or is it a goal for me to reach, like scaling a mountain? In myself, I see both. My passions and talents drive me towards a “better world” that only I can bring about, and that vision of the future drives me towards full self-realization. But if the desire to make a difference in the world becomes a means to this end of self-realization, then my striving is ultimately selfish. It is for the sake of my own legacy rather than the good I can do.
Sure enough, when I examine my heart, I know that I don’t just want to be the best I can be. I want to be the best at something. And I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something I was made to do, a niche only I can fill. But then a week comes when the failures hit too fast and too hard for me to rally the conviction that somehow, by some metric, I am exceptional. A semester comes when I feel like I’ve gone too far down a path that will not allow me to make the most of my life. The statue within is cracked, and mediocrity hits me in the face like a truck. I am a jack of all trades and a master of none, and I am headed nowhere.
Yet somehow, even when I am fully convinced of my own mediocrity and non-exceptionality, my sense of destiny stubbornly persists. My existential anxiety is worse because I still feel some external purpose drawing me. The mountain I seek is no less real and beautiful just because I feel like I can never reach it. And I’m right–I can’t. None of us can. Even if we find our fields of comparative advantage–the niches we are sculpted to fill–we are left with one job: to keep increasing our productivity until we die. Our society sees specialization as the way to reach the peak of greatness; in reality, it is a never-ending climb. I will never reach the top, but I will always fear falling. Yet though the peak is unreachable, my desire to reach it–indeed, my belief that I am meant to–is strangely unwavering and must be reckoned with.
It may be that my desire for greatness is merely a biological drive: my sense of destiny a trick of the brain to propel me forward in the struggle for survival and dominance. Or, my desire might mean something true about reality and myself. There might be a different kind of greatness. To believe this requires an act of faith; but the alternative, that my desire is random and leads nowhere, I can only accept as absurd or tragic then be paralyzed by pointlessness. Embracing meaning (and rejecting absurdity) is the only way to move with the hope of a destination. What if my innate desires for destiny and greatness–the sculpture and the mountain peak, as I imagine them–are a promise from one who knows exactly who I am and where I am headed?
If a God exists who knows every aspect of the self I am trying to maximize–not only my limits but also greatness in dimensions that I never contemplated–then the way forward is by a commandment so simple and so difficult that it never made it onto a stone tablet: “Follow me.” If I believe God’s promise that my destiny will be fulfilled, then I should relinquish the illusion of control over that destiny, and with it my near-sighted striving. Relinquishing control over our lives can feel impossible; yet I believe that this is the way not only to true greatness, but to deep, abiding rest and freedom from the anxiety of legacy and self-maximization. Moreover, it is ultimately a joyful task because it is based on relationship and trust, not individualism and competition.
There is no objectively complete proof that faith in my desire as a promise is well-founded, that the mountain and the sculpture I envision are real. Nevertheless, I have personally found compelling evidence in literature, in art, and in my role-models. It seems to me that lives of true greatness—of self-maximization, external impact, and sometimes even lasting legacy—are lives of sacrifice. I don’t mean that greatness is in the sacrifice itself; I mean that greatness requires relinquishing our desire for the destiny we envision, sacrificing our will in obedience, in order to pursue and receive a greater destiny than we could have imagined. Just as every destiny is unique, the act of relinquishing that is asked of each person will be different. And paradoxically, by serving others above oneself, one’s longed-for destiny is ultimately realized in unexpected ways. We may find that investments of our time and resources that seem to be taking us in the wrong direction–extracurriculars or classes that don’t add to our resume, time carved out from study hours to grieve or laugh with a friend—will shape us in ways we don’t expect.
“The one who pursues righteousness and love finds life, bounty, and honor” (Prov. 21:22, ESV). I believe that God will fulfill the promise; God took on flesh to fulfill it. We will reach the mountain on this earth because it is our home. The sculpture will take beautiful, recognizable shape (at least in part) “here in this life,” as Kierkegaard writes. However, our greatness will not be defined by a life-saving innovation or discovery, a paradigm-shifting model, or a transformative work of art. Even if we achieve such things, they will only be refractions of greater truth, greater beauty, greater love. Our true, unearned yet destined greatness, achieved by relinquishing control and embracing faith, will be a unique and unconditional identity, an overflowing return on the investment of our talents for others, and an unimaginably abundant life. I desire that greatness more than anything.
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that He may teach us His ways
and that we may walk in His paths.”
 In her novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s title character asks a preacher, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” Belief in meaning itself is at the heart of Christianity.
 The power of stories is that they expand our “moral imagination” to recognize the promises fulfilled. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio tells how Abraham expected God to provide a lamb to sacrifice in place of Isaac, but God sent a ram; in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a king expects to see a statue of his wife as she was when she died, but finds that the “statue” has aged as he has. Each must have the eyes to see that this really is the miracle he has been waiting for.
Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.