Let’s explore this potent question of living up to, or wasting, one’s potential. Once we get that out of the way, we can actually get closer to the heart of the pain and confusion you are experiencing.
Think about the word itself: potential. It is built on the Latin root poten, or power. It’s closely related to other Latin roots of power, such as posse. Some examples: possess, possible, potential, potency, potentate.
Wasting one’s potential is like wasting one’s seed (in the Onanistic sense). One possess one’s children. One lives on through them. One sees one’s power of material creation through them. I know this is all abstract when it comes to the rather quotidian notion of not wasting your potential, but bear with me. We’re going a bit subterranean here.
The fear of not expressing your potential is the fear of being impotent, which is related to the fear of death, or more rightly, non-existence. One could say that the fear of non-existence is the fear of enlightenment, because…guess what happens when you are enlightened?
First of all, your self-ideation vanishes, gone, poof. And your idea of yourself is all that you are at the moment. Sure. there are times when you are quiet and watching a sunset, or meditating or whatever, where you momentarily lose your sense of self and become immersed in all that is. So lovely, isn’t it? To be momentarily unshackled to “yourself”? You might experience la petite mort during sex, where you lose yourself. Even thirty brief seconds of this is bliss. But how long does it take, really, until your idea of yourself reasserts its total primacy over your experience?
Waking up brings with it the incredible freedom (and mind boggling inconvenience) of non-existence, as well as a terrible intimacy with The Void. The first is a mundane kind of death or non-existence, the latter, much more profound, ultimate, terrifying and irresistible.
Think back to when you were a little kid. When was the first time you feared not living up to your potential? For better or worse, small children are terribly potent. Assuming one is not drugging one’s kids literally with psycho pharma, or figuratively with eight hours of daily media consumption, that child is going to be frightfully potent every minute they are awake. There is some point where you became aware of this idea of your potential. And it wasn’t just potential in general, it was very personal, something you own or possess…everyone has their very own potential.
It’s a heavy burden. We are taught this idea of personal potential, and as adults we carry it as though it were a real thing, and we propagate it to others, in our culture and to our own children. I invite you to set the burden down for a while so you can contemplate the heart of it. You can always (and most likely will!) pick it right back up, so don’t worry about losing it. Just set it down for now.
I’m not going to give you answers. You’ve got to find those for yourself. Allow me to pose some questions for you to really go deeply into and see what you find.
What is your potential? Don’t just think about it abstractly, or intelligently. Feel it, lean into it, touch it and shake it and try to find the dimensions of it. What is this thing you possess (or which possesses you) that you call “my potential”? This will take you a while. One doesn’t just come up with a snappy answer, based on popular psychology or whatever. Get to know “my potential” intimately. What is it? What function has it had in your life? What function does it have now?
How does wasting your potential feel? At what point in your life will you definitively be able to claim that you have wasted your potential? Is there some endpoint where you will make a final assessment on this? Can you waste some of your potential and still be okay? Is it okay to waste 49% of your potential, or is it when you’ve let two thirds of the pie go to waste that you will truly have wasted your potential?
What should you be doing now that you are not doing? What part of your potential should you be claiming now that you are not? How have you determined this, what do you base this on? What are you doing instead?
These are all just ways of getting to know this monolithic thing you call “my potential”. You’ve lived with it most of your life and it’s so familiar that you probably never really examine it closely. At times it may have been a motivating force in your life, like some kind of beacon calling you to keep reaching, but now it seems more like sleeping on sandpaper sheets.
So, just with all I’ve written to this point, you have a lot of homework to do! Don’t skip it, even though we are going to move on here.
It’s hard to be neither here nor there. You had a life, a trajectory, motivation, all these potentials, all these ideas of what your life could be and who you could be in it. You had an idea of what you wanted and what would make you happy. These things are in the past. Then there is the future, which you are having a hard time picturing in that more or less solid way you used to be able to picture it. You are going through a transition, but it doesn’t feel good. You used to be more solid. Your idea of yourself was more solid. And now you are feeling like more of a blob. People around you are going forward in their lives. You see them going forward. You might not really feel you are, and that life is moving forward without you. You can’t go back because you see how empty that is, but you can’t move forward in any meaningful or satisfying way because you have changed and you can’t use the old tools, the old motivations, the old coping mechanisms. They don’t work any more.
You are in a transition period. It feels like limbo and it’s disorienting, confusing and painful. This is a place from which people naturally start to rev their engines and dig themselves deeper into a mud rut, or they grab hold of a rope thrown to them by some person or organization or ideology or religion or cult. It’s natural, but the former will just keep you stuck in limbo longer and the later will lead to a very long and low rent detour. Not to mention the hangover! Or, they do something like get married or have a baby or some other Big Life Change that is sufficiently overwhelming and demanding, to force a refocus of their lives.
You are in a dismantling phase, a transition. It is painful and confusing, and I’m sorry, but there is no way to escape those feelings, even through “spirituality”…which can be one of the worst detours ever. It is not the last one you will go through. It happens at the end of certain stages or cycles. This is a huge accomplishment. It doesn’t ever feel that way, but getting to the end of a cycle and letting yourself actually digest and alchemize all the dead mind stuff and old persona paradigms rather than continue to find novel ways to prop them up so that the show can go on for another season…this is awesome. Congratulations are in order!
The process is yucky, and I can’t make it feel any better, except to let you know you are not alone. And also, this may be really most important…there is nothing wrong with you. When you hit the wall at the end of a cycle and nothing really works anymore, your first reaction is that something is WRONG and needs to be fixed. You work like mad trying to find a way to fix it. Your scour books, blogs, forums, ancient texts…whatever! There is nothing wrong with you. It does not feel good to be in The In Between, but you are exactly where you should be.
You can spend a long time in this liminal space, but you don’t have to. It will be hard anyway, but you can make it harder than necessary, or…only as hard as it needs to be.
In martial arts, one expects to be thrown to the ground, hard. You know it will happen, so rather than avoiding it, you learn to fall well. There is a point in sparing when you know it’s over and you are going down. Up until that point, you are using all your Upright strategies. At that very point of recognizing the reality, that you are going down, you immediately switch into your Falling strategy.
In life, you need to have both. But you are almost never taught to a)recognize and admit that you are going down and b)how to do that like a pro.
I want you to really take to heart all that I’ve written here up to this point. It will take a while to work through all the questions and unravel your feelings around power, death, potential and being in limbo. You need to do this work.
There is no escape, but there is a way through that is more graceful and less about gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes and pulling your hair out! I’ll see you on the other side!