I’ve been excited by exactly one underwear advertisement in my life.
Sometime during my childhood there was a television commercial for underwear embroidered with Optimus Prime—the leader of the good robots, the Autobots—on the Transformers cartoon. It was the most exciting underwear advertisement ever. Whenever the kids in the commercial put on their briefs they transformed into Optimus. Every time that commercial aired I would beg my mom to buy me a pair. I wanted to transform, too.
One day my mother came home with a package of that same, colorful underwear. It was early afternoon and the sun was beaming through the living room windows—not the normal time of day to be changing one’s undies, but as soon as she handed me the package I ran to my room, and in no time I was standing in front of the mirror, wearing only my shirt and my new robot-clad drawers, my hands placed proudly on my hips as I awaited my impending transformation. I didn’t feel anything except excitement.
After a moment the excitement began to wane. I thought to myself, Wait, maybe I’m not transforming because my eyes are open. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could, and my excitement level rose once again. I opened my eyes, but to my dismay all I saw in the mirror was a dorky kid with his hands on his hips, with nothing but Transformer underwear and an old teeshirt on his pudgy body. No metal, no cool transformed parts—just me.
This was my first experience with self-actualization. As it all came crashing down, I realized I wasn’t going to transform while standing there in front of the mirror.
Every child grows up with exaggerated hopes and dreams. They grow up with an idea of what they want to become, their ideal self. To adults, childhood dreams—childhood ideals—are cute, but farfetched. Something happens when we become older: at a certain point, we realize simply putting on underwear with pictures of robots isn’t going to change us. Worse, as life shapes us, too often the pendulum starts to swing the other way: We start doubting ourselves. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. Our hopes and desires become under-exaggerated.
Self-actualization has to do with a person living up to his or her full potential. When Kurt Goldstein talks about self-actualization, he describes it as the ability of an organism to realize its full potential in the present moment. Self-actualization is what drives an organism to live. Kids might not morph into large robots when they change their undergarments, but that doesn’t mean they can’t transform into something cool over the long haul. As we mature we have the opportunity to grow.
It’s easier to grow if we first visualize, as concretely as possible, what we want to grow into. Before we set goals, before we take the first step in the right direction, we must see our full potential through self-actualization. If we don’t, we’ll keep looking for the quick fix: we’ll keep looking to change ourselves by just changing our underwear.
“Prime Optimist” is an excerpt from Chapbook.