I heard it again at my daughter’s graduation: “You can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do. The sky is the limit.” Our culture’s superhero mantra is echoed at ceremonies across the country, chanted so often we seldom ask if it’s really true. Does a wise man know his limits, or does a brave man deny them? The above assertion would assume the latter.
I understand the sentiment. We want our kids to excel, to be brave, to flourish in their gifts and talents, all good. But the assertion is both unrealistic and dangerous. Perhaps it’s also one of our culture’s most basic falsehoods.
The truth is, only the fortunate few actually reach their most desired ultimate goals in life, usually with the help of a few miracles. And those who claim they have “achieved it all” quickly find out it doesn’t satisfy. Or they find themselves with far more problems than they had in the beginning.
A common problem with the “sky is the limit” creed is the stress and anxiety this belief instills, especially in children. They may easily feel their best is never good enough. They mark themselves on their mental report card and compare themselves to others and then wonder if they are really “the best they can be” since they’re not “the best in class.”
We assume the competition is “good for them.” It’s the way we grew up, after all. But do we really want them to be as messed up as we are? I wonder sometimes if the expectation we put on our children reflects how little we ourselves think we’ve achieved and is an attempt to save ourselves.
One big beef I have with our culture’s “limitless potential” ideal is its arrogance. Our world is finite. Our lives have obvious limits. A pandemic, recurring economic crises, the climate crisis, each of these should have taught us by now that our most noble goals can suddenly go up in flames or be washed out by a flood. Economic, social, mental, or physical limitations daily fly in the face of “you can be and do whatever you want.”
A child will eventually face the reality that they may never reach a certain ideal or goal. She won’t make the soccer team and will never be a professional because she’s not good enough. He will never get that girl because she’s just not into him. She continually gets low scores in school and does not have the academic chops to go to Stanford. A serious sickness may mean he will never run the Boston Marathon. Dad may lose his job and have to sell the house, and now you’re moving to a small apartment in a less privileged part of town.
At these moments, even to a child, “you can do anything you want” sounds as futile as watching a dog chasing crows and imagining one day he’ll catch one. But as difficult as it may sound, limitations are good for the soul. They teach us humility and reverence for things we have no control over. Our limitations remind us of our shared humanity and connect us to one another.
And what about kids who don’t know who they are or “who they want to be”? That was me right into early adulthood. I didn’t have a good idea of who I wanted to be, and I felt lost. My self-esteem deteriorated, and I was plagued with anxiety. I’m eclectic to this day. I like many things equally. But this does not mesh with a culture that values specialization and career driven individuals.
Consider this model. Rather than focusing our kids’ eyes on future goals and “the sky is the limit,” how about simply affirming and enjoying them for how God’s made them? Have we taken this first step? Have we let them know how proud we are of them regardless of their “achievements,” and how much we like them for who they are today and not for what they might become one day?
A more lasting basis for success and happiness includes values such as meaningful relationships, beauty, justice, truth, love, faith, and loyalty. Even a pandemic can’t take those from us. With this focus kids can live with not knowing what they want to be. They don’t have to keep chasing crows because they know they can succeed all their lives regardless of circumstances. They can better manage disappointments, failure, and limitations.
In my daughter’s final report before graduating her academic marks were so-so, but the report included this comment: “She is a positive force in our learning community, and kind. She consistently models patience, understanding, and compassion.” These qualities were not on her “sky is the limit, be whatever you want to be” list, but it was all I needed to hear.
Graduation addresses don’t normally. stick with me, but there is one from a friend of mine that does. He challenged graduates to think about what they know. He told them that, amid all they've learned or hope to learn, the most important thing they will ever know is that they are beloved, loved by another, loved by God. Does anything else really matter?