Not long ago, there was a landslide near my office in San Francisco. Part of a cliff supporting a hiking trail gave way and slid down toward the Pacific Ocean. No one was injured, but nature had circumcised a beautiful promontory and led hikers to re-route and bemoan the loss of a long cherished path to which they had become accustomed.
In the long historical cycles of California geography, this event is not unusual. Storms, fires, earthquakes, and slides have periodically caused havoc and disaster. But they are part of the earth’s heaving and healing, recycling, and developing and whose imprecise patterns may often take eons to emerge and occur in consonance with a divine wisdom that is beyond human control and understanding.
Real estate developers and construction companies envision and build, and dwellers and investors assume risks and stake claims as they plan, expand, and attempt to foretell the future. While we live in and deal with the dynamics of the present, we also remember and learn from (and ideally heed) the events of the past, while amassing personal and communal treasures and aspirations for posterity. The common denominators for these vital human endeavors and machinations are intrinsically linked to a divine science that is infused into and regulates our world: both the faithful and skeptical alike live in a world of potential.
What a concept: potential! It is the possible—augmented by some real or anticipated probability, but, as yet, not actualized certainty––that is the engine for human desire and motivation. Physicists tell us that neither matter nor energy are created or destroyed. They are stored and converted, each having the latent potential to re-emerge perhaps in the same form or transmogrified. Biologists and neuroscientists denote the capacity of and conditions for neurons to fire; these are known as action potentials. Chemists delineate the inclination of elements and compounds to combine in reactions, thereby actualizing the potential for something with different form and properties. That hydrogen and oxygen can bond and form water is nothing less than a miracle of potential. Add or subtract heat, as nature and man do, and behold transformation in the mundane.
The layperson in all of us looks for potential in our hopes, dreams, and careful protective scrutiny over those we love as they grow.
We see the potential in the capable bodies of young athletes, the insightful perspective of young artists, writers, and poets, the capable minds of young scientists (and others)–– what they might attain if they actualized their full talents. We view our own children’s talents and daydream about our aspirations for them. We regard children (and especially our own) with some biased and some impartial speculation about their potential attainments, possibilities that are indicated by early signs of abilities and preferences. Sometimes we overlook the present obstacles and yellow and red flag setbacks in favor of the seductive lure of imagination and potential as we fantasize about their future and try to protect our vision for them. By so doing, we are able to preserve the promising future that we imagine. We think, “He’s so bright. There’s always the potential for him to become more motivated and serious about his studies and someday become a doctor or lawyer or engineer, etc.” As if to ensure a promising development, we relish the contemporary glimmers that may augur such a future, assuming the child shares this aspiration and predilection.
Potential also holds danger and uncertainty. Things don’t always work out as we would have them. For some, the fear and uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen is debilitating and paralyzing. For others, the handwriting on the wall foreshadows gloomy potential. Eventually, we all must die of something. As nature commands, the potential of good functioning must ultimately abruptly or gradually end in breakdown. There is the expected and the unexpected. We plan and are careful, yet time and happenstance touch all of us. Cancer may afflict us with unwelcome dire consequences; trauma, accidents, injury can interfere with our potential achievements; the consequences of our decisions and the manifestation of character bear down relentlessly as the future unfolds and morphs our destiny. The intent of our ambition becomes suddenly fractured, and potential is transformed. Life may be cut short by disaster or tragedy, and we are left to wonder and improvise about mercy and the meaning of potential.
What does it mean to fulfill one’s potential? In this natural and partly unpredictable world where energy and matter are neither created nor destroyed, but we are all created and destroyed, where dreams are formed and dashed, where transformation is scientific and transcendental, commonplace and yearned for, where desire and intention are abruptly aborted—how do we sanely and humbly strive to assess and achieve potential?
As a psychologist, my work with people requires focusing on relieving their distressing symptoms: the angst, illness, and disorder that stresses and distresses their lives. My professional training and acumen involves technical tools, skills of assessment, and the mathematics of probability and prediction—that is, the forecasting of what is likely or less likely to happen, given the presenting set of conditions and the appropriate interventions or lack thereof. In other words, I am dealing with potentials. I am also dealing with very sensitive human beings. Thus, my duty requires the conscientious admixture of professional intervention with a humble respect for the personal aspirations and potentials of my patients. I am “fixing” symptoms and conditions, relieving disorder, and promoting healing. But on another significant level, I am empowering people and helping them to explore and reveal their potentials.
This is pointedly manifest in the art and science of assessment. Diagnostic evaluation and assessment (facilitated by accurate and reliable tests) can reveal the strengths and weaknesses of people’s mental functions, the comparative levels of abilities and disabilities, and the propensities for unpreparedness, dysfunction, and danger. In certain cases, courts may want to know a person’s capacity for reasoning or mental state, and parents want to know if there is justification for their aspirations vis-a-vis their child.
It is good to assess potentials for the sake of both ambitions and risks. At best, this is an imperfect endeavor, undertaken in our hearts and validated in tandem with the more scientific and objective intellectual, aptitude, and personality measuring tools available to us. Nevertheless, we are bound to be sometimes wrong and disappointed or even heartbroken. Though mortal, we live for the future. Therefore, we aim toward potentials.
As some potentials unfold, many do not. Not every sperm succeeds, not every egg is fertilized. Potential is thwarted by improbability and, most evidently, by reality. Limitations exist, as does competition and the natural devolvement of human strength. Most rising stars turn ordinary soon enough. So what is the point of training a puppy who will die and steal your heart, raising a child who will not listen to most of what you know is better for him, or practicing a skill that will fade with physical incapacity and behind the glamour and novelty of young and technical brilliance?
My mother often quoted a saying: Let your reach exceed your grasp, else what’s a heaven for? She was, by nature, an optimist, and she quoted this saying to encourage both me and herself and to describe a certain wonder about the nature of ambition and potential.
As a child, I wasn’t sure about heaven and my place in relation to it; but now I am sure I’m going there (details to be determined). Heaven is my potential; for now, I trust this destiny on faith. My potential on earth is limited, not only by years, but by a host of other factors: I have made choices, faced environmental and genetic limitations, become trained, disciplined, aged, injured, and traumatized. I have had things dear taken away: people, pets, possessions, opportunities, and physical capacities. Many of my potentials in this material life have been curtailed.
So, before heaven, what is my potential, and how do I realize it? Everyone faces this question. It is a dilemma of development, identity, and soul. It is addressed by the toil of learning and practicing, by inevitable competition, by establishing one’s place among economic and social strata, and by coming to terms psychologically and spiritually with the meaning of one’s life and purpose.
Though I have seen that my potential is limited physically, by my choices, and to a continuing and reinforcing extent by my attitudes and circumstances, I also see that my potential in the things that really matter is virtually unlimited. I am talking about the development of my character, commitment, and emulation of Christ. In the things that really matter, I can become better and better: caring about others, being unselfish, putting the needs of others before my own, practicing humility, gratitude, sacrificing for others, exercising self-control, love, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, willingness to please, and keeping in step with the Spirit.
As a man, I am limited by nature. As a child of God, I have choice and the opportunity for freedom, forgiveness, and acceptance. As a spiritual being, I have unlimited potential to become more like Christ who saved me. I face the challenges of turning away from sin and of growing in the grace and knowledge of God. The potential for this growth is unlimited. Physical death is the gateway to the fulfillment of promises and eternal potential. Along the way, I make progress toward goals that are worthy, though never fully attainable in this life. This path is unlike Zeno’s paradox, however, in which movement toward and achievement of any goal is an illusion (since, by halving the distance to a goal with each move, you can never actually attain it). The spiritual path toward servitude and enlightenment is full of earthly rewards, attainable goals, and commendation by and identification with the Heavenly Father, the Creator. It is a lifestyle in which natural limitations are supplanted by limitless potential for becoming more like the Creator, whose perfection will someday unite me with him.
By practicing the virtues commanded by Christ, I make energy and matter transform. I plant seeds that flower in hearts and lives, turn energy and desire into acts of love, and receive material blessings and hardships as evidence of God’s presence, benevolence, and control.
As I practice crucifying the desires of the flesh and turning away from evil, my potential for drawing closer to God expands. As I focus on the truth and the eternal, my potential for thankfulness increases as does my perseverance and ability to withstand what seems unfair or oppressive. Presently, I am a steward for the unlimited potential to reflect God’s light. Eventually, I will live fully in that light, no longer needing to grasp at my mother’s exhortation.
As I gaze out over the pelagic expanse of the Pacific Ocean, above where the earth slid into the sea, I look toward Hawaii and Japan. Regardless of my elevation, I cannot see them, but I know they are there. I cannot see heaven, nor apprehend its magnitude, yet I know it exists. I will be there, leaving the earth before it is done with its cycles of transformation. Until then, there is unlimited potential to become more like image of the God who created me.