There was a peasant farmer in old Russia standing at the side of the road, weeping profusely. As he stood there, the Czar happened to pass by in his royal coach. The Czar saw the peasant, and when he noticed him weeping, he stopped his chariot to inquire what was wrong. The man tearfully explained that he had no land to farm, and he and his family were starving. The Czar, touched by this man’s misfortune, pulled out a stake from his chariot and drove it into the ground. He then gave the peasant three more stakes and instructed him: “Walk as far as you wish and then drive this stake into the ground. Turn, walk again as far as you wish, and then place the next stake in the ground. Finally, turn again and walk as far as you’d like before placing the last stake in the ground. The land between the four stakes will be yours as a gift from me, the Czar.”
The man was overcome with joy and eagerly began to walk. After some time, he stopped and prepared to plant the stake in the ground. He was about to drive it in when he paused and thought, “Why should I stop here? I can have so much more!” So he continued to walk. After some time, he stopped and once again prepared to plant the stake in the ground. He was about to drive it in when he once again paused and thought, “Why should I stop here? I can have so much more!” So he continued to walk. And as the story goes, he never stopped walking…
The powerful message from this story is clear; we have so much potential in our lives, but if we never sacrifice our potential in order to create something real, we will never accomplish anything.
Potential vs. Actual
The Maharal explains that there is an important relationship between the spiritual concepts of potential and actual. Potential is endless, multi-potent, everything and anything. It has no boundaries, no borders, and no limitations. Something real and actual, on the other hand, is restricted, has borders, and is limited only to what it is. Potential might be endless, but it’s not real. What is real might be limited, but it has taken on true existence. Our lives are filled with experiences of both potential and actualized potential. Let us explore a few manifestations of these ideas in order to better understand this root concept.
The prime example of the concept of potential and reality is our relationship with time. When you wake up each morning, the day holds infinite potential. You have the time to do anything, go anywhere, meet anyone. But that’s only potential, for in reality, you haven’t done anything yet. And in reality, you can’t do everything, only something. On the other hand, every night when you go to sleep, the potential of that day is completely gone. The only thing that remains is that which you made real from the time you were given, what you accomplished, who you became in that day. The sadness of this moment is that the potential is gone – your day is over. The happiness is everything that you have accomplished, everything you’ve made real.
This same paradigm applies to life itself. At the beginning of life you have infinite potential; you can become anything, learn anything, meet anyone. Your whole life is ahead of you, but completely in potential. This is not yet real, it is only potential, the possibilities for what you can choose to become. Only the potential that we actualize becomes eternal. At the end of our lives there is a mixture of feelings. The sadness is that your potential is gone. The happiness is that we can look back at all that we have accomplished with a feeling of pride, knowing that we have taken the time we were given to build ourselves, to make our potential real.
The Creative Process
This pattern of potential and reality is behind the experience of every creative process as well. When you begin an artistic work, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a book, or anything of the sort, you have infinite potential. The creative process can lead you down any path; there are endless possibilities for what you can make. However, in order to make something real, you must decide on only one thing to make. You must limit the endless potential in order to make something real. Interestingly enough, this process mirrors Hashem’s creation of the world. The Ramchal states that Hashem is infinite and therefore has the ability to create any type of world that He chooses. However, out of all the endless possibilities, He chose to create this world, the one you and I exist in.
The Strength and Weaknesses of Both
Potential is beautiful, majestic and infinitely precious. We all understand the value of potential. However, the weakness of potential is that it’s just that, potential. It’s not real, it’s merely theoretical. The greatness of something that has been actualized is that it’s tangible and real. The weakness, though, is that it’s only that, nothing more. A finished project is a form of actualized potential. It’s beautiful in that it’s real, but it’s still important to realize that it’s limited to what it is. It could have been anything else – there were endless possibilities. However, it’s now the specific and unique form that the artist chose to create.
Limiting Potential for Actual
The ultimate challenge is limiting infinite potential for the sake of being able to create something real. Imagine if a wealthy and generous person offered you any amount of money in the world. “Just quote me a number and I’ll give it to you,” he says. Your mind races as you think about the amount of money you can request. Ten thousand dollars? A million? Let’s say you finally decide to say five million dollars, and he hands over the money; the pleasure of that decision is that you are now five million dollars richer. The pain is that you don’t get a single dollar more. You could have said six million, or five hundred million, or seven trillion. The list of potential numbers is never-ending. However, much like the farmer in our introductory story, if you can’t sacrifice potential for actual, you’ll end up with nothing.
This struggle is a difficult one, and it pervades all areas of life. You’ll often hear people say, “Why marry this person, perhaps the next one who comes along will be better?” “Why take this business offer, maybe the next one will be better?” When we fall prey to this line of thinking, we end up with nothing.
The Modern Challenge
We like to fantasize about perfect futures, ideal living conditions, and ultimate relationships. However, sometimes we get so caught up in dreaming about a better life that we don’t end up living it. This is a life trapped in potential, without ever making that potential a reality. Potential is beautiful, but only inasmuch as we utilize it, only in how we bring it to fruition. We must be willing to start with what we have, where we are, and work our way from there.
May we be inspired to actualize our potential to the fullest extent, trying our best to choose the real over the fantasy.