The Jonah Complex

I came across this excellent article online by Marianne Williamson about Maslow’s idea of the Jonah Complex which is very interesting.

“Evading the Creative Impulse

To invent or create you must have the “arrogance of creativeness” which so many investigators [and researchers] have noticed. But, of course, if you have only the arrogance without the humilty, then you are in fact paranoid…Aldous Huxley managed it by perpetually marveling at how interesting and fascinating everything was, by wondering like a youngster at how miraculous thins are, by saying frequently, “Extraordinary! Extraordinary!” He could look out at the world with wide eyes, with unabashed innocence, awe, and fascination, which is a kind of admission of smallness, a form of humility, and then proceed calmly and unafraid to the great tasks he set for himself. – Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature
Last night I bought Soul Prints after reading those two pages I shared with you as well as Abraham Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Startling, but I didn’t realize they both describe a recurring theme for me which I detailed in the “Tell Me What To Do – Except Think Big” post. In Chapter 2 of Maslow’s book, the chapter on Neurosis as a Failure of Personal Growth, Maslow calls it the Jonah Complex.

We have, all of us, an impulse to improve ourselves, an impulse toward actualizing more of our potentialities, toward self-actualization, or full humanness or human fulfillment, or whatever term you like. Granted this, then what holds us up? What blocks us? … In my own notes I had at first labeled this defense the “fear of one’s own greatness” or the “evasion of one’s destiny” or the “running away from one’s own best talents.”
We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moment, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.

More startling than coming home with these two books is how much the Jonah story (I am not much into reading Old Testament, so I only know of the man-in-belly-of-whale part of the myth) mirrors my own life to a T; how I’ve evaded the siren call of my authentic tune and all its echoes. From Soul Prints:

Because of the risk inherent in responding to a call, we sometimes hear an authentic call clearly but simply do not want to respond. There can be so many reasons why. Two are predominant. The first is laziness and the second is fear.
By laziness, I don’t mean the too-difficult-to-get-out-of-bed kind of laziness…Like a drug, we are all under the influence of heavy inertia. It is always [I’d add seemingly] easier and more comfortable to stay where you are. A call always involves some degree of movement – of action…

The second reason for resistance is fear – the fear that the call will conflict with your agenda. This fear is the demon dancing between the lines of the Jonah myth. Jonah is the biblical prophet called to the task of reforming the great city of Nineveh. The complexity of Jonah’s story lies in the fact that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – Israel’s archenemy. As no less than the leader of Israel, the last thing Jonah wanted to do was to go teach wisdom to the citizens of Ninevah. He had a competing agenda. The result? He ignored the call. He pretended, to everyone, himself included, that he hadn’t heard a thing.

Jonah promptly slipped out of the city, reached seaside, bought a ticket, and boarded a ship to set off as far as possible from his impossible call. But his calling pursued him, pouring down storms on his stiff neck and hard head. The waters raged – as they are wont to do when we ignore our calls [doesn’t imply this is “punishment”, it’s just we just don’t do so well when we deny our very own innate nature]. The whole ship was endangered – for unanswered calls can be treacherous [well, maybe not that drastic, but a lot of turmoil] to ourselves as well as those closest to us. Jonah asked to be thrown overboard, preferably to his death, but he fell right into the mouth of a whale. There in its cavernous belly his call finally caught up to him.

Perhaps it happened there because of the awful stench and the fact that he had no place else to run; or perhaps because the whale’s belly was a chamber of meditation where Jonah met himself. However it came about, eventually Jonah was deposited upon dry land and pointed in the direction of his destiny: Nineveh. Soggy but reconciled, he set off for the great city. His is a passionate story whose point, of course, is that the call can’t be calmed, can’t be conquered, ignored or escaped. Whatever we do, the call comes back.

We all have some degree of what human potential psychologist Abraham Maslow called a Jonah Complex. We all try to some extent to divert our attention, to look the other way, and to cotton our ears to the call.

The Jonah complex characteristics include:

an evasion of growth and fulfilling one’s best talents
fear of one’s greatness including the sense that it may be inherently dangerous
fear of the sense of responsibility that often attends recognizing our own greatness, talents, potentials
fear that an extraordinary life would be out of the ordinary, and hence not “acceptable” to others
fear that the process may be too powerful, too intense, too overwhelming (as in looking directly into the sun)
fear of losing control, of annihilation, or of disintegration by the experience
fear of hubris, or “sinful pride” leading to paranoia”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” – Marianne Williamson
Posted by Evelyn Rodriguez on Sep 12, 2004 at 03:12 PM in Awareness, Innovators and Creators | Permalink

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