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 thus 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 land!” 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 message of this story is clear: We have so much potential in our lives, but only by transforming the limitless possibilities into something real can we ever accomplish anything. Only by giving up the limitless can we attain something meaningful.
Potential vs. Actual
As the Maharal and others explain, there is an important relationship between the spiritual concepts of potential and the actual.
Potential is endless, multipotent, 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.
Time As Potential
The prime illustration of the concept of potential and reality lies in 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, etc. 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. There is no time left. The only thing that remains is that which you made real from the time you were given, what you accomplished, and who you became that day. The sadness of this moment is that the potential is gone – your day is over; the joy is everything that you have accomplished, everything you have 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, etc. Your whole life is ahead of you, but it is fully potential. This is not yet real; all that exists are the possibilities for what you can choose to become. It therefore does not yet have any lasting meaning. Only the potential that we actualize becomes eternal. At the end of our lives, we are out of time and out of potential. However, we have all the accomplishments that we spent a lifetime building. Consequently, there is a mixture of feelings at this point in time. On the one hand, we feel sadness when we think about how our potential is gone and our time is up. On the other hand, we feel tremendous joy when we think about all that we have accomplished, proud that we have taken the time we were given to build ourselves and to make our potential real.
Winter vs. Summer
In secular culture, youth is associated with spring and summer, while old age is compared to winter. This is because youth is a time of potential, of excitement, of newness and fun. Old age, on the other hand, is when that potential is nearly gone, and the physical body has withered and gone cold. It is therefore associated with the depression and darkness of winter, as potential has dwindled, and death is nearing.
Fascinatingly, the Jewish approach is the exact opposite. Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) compares youth to winter and old age to summer. This is because winter is the time of planting seeds, the ultimate time of potential. It represents childhood, the beginning of your journey in this world. Summer, on the other hand, is like the end of life when your seeds have borne crops and when you see all that you have produced with the life you’ve been given.
Secular culture is enamored with youth and potential, paying less attention to actualizing potential and achieving greatness. The outlook of Judaism is not an infatuation with what can be; it is an appreciation of what has been made real. We don’t see potential as the ultimate goal; on the contrary, we aim for the rich satisfaction of actualized potential. This is the true joy of life; this is the ultimate summer.
The Creative Process
This pattern of potential and reality shapes the creative process, as well. When you set out to create an artistic work – whether it’s a painting, sculpture, book, or anything of the sort – you have infinite potential. The creative process can lead you down any path, and there are endless possibilities of what you can make. However, in order to actually create a work of art, you must decide to make something specific. In other words, 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 Strengths 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 and 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 ability 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, 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?” or “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. (It goes without saying that dreaming is essential. In fact, often we need to dream in order to wake up and live the life we are meant to live. But when we dream instead of living a life of growth and contribution, the dream becomes our very undoing.) 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, to choose the real over fantasy, and to prepare ourselves for the ultimate summer.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: ShmuelReichman.com.