You don't know just how much you're capable of. Or how good you could make your life. This idea has roots in the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who analysed life in terms of potential: the potency, or power within everything to grow into something greater. He likened us to plants, which begin as a seed and become a tree. Our potential is hidden within, waiting for the right conditions to spring forth.
Your potential is something innate, a set of wonderful possibilities seeking to unfold in you. This should not be understood in a mechanical way, however, for potential is not fully fixed. As the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, we also have much freedom to choose what we become. To put it in a different language, we have an incredible capacity for tuning into and directing the energies of life.
All of this means that you have no idea what you could become, what you could achieve, and how good you could make your life. As I say, it takes effort and wisdom, skill and insight to orient yourself properly and so to bring forth what you are capable of. But like most things in life that is less about complexity or cleverness, and more about orienting your vision well and living with courage.
Often when people suffer fear or despair about their life, and often when somebody is stuck and unhappy in life, they are failing to really see and feel the potential that dwells in them. Counselling, for me, is often about helping a person orient themselves in this way, to move forward. That word--orientation--is fundamental here.
Something new happened a few centuries ago in Europe. For thousands of years most civilisations have seen history as a steady decline from a previous golden age. There was a pessimism about the human story. But during the European Enlightenment things were reversed. The culture became possessed with the idea of an incline: that human beings have profound potential. The idea took hold that we could change the world into something wonderful. The result of that belief is seen in our lives today: we have made astonishing progress in so many areas of life. We don't know where this will end, but it is clear--empirically--that there is an overarching and accelerating trend toward improvement; for example, worldwide the number of people living below the poverty line has halved in the last twenty years. Not that you hear news reports or conversations about such things--most of us are pessimistic. Not simply circumspect, but pessimistic.
That is all too human, because a brave new world can be frightening, and fear can tempt us to cynicism. Yet if the European Enlightenment taught us anything, it is that hope and despair are each self-fulfilling prophecies. We can orient ourselves toward life's possibilities in ways that can transform life for the better. When this happens it can seem almost magical, but it is the most natural thing in the world. And it is as true of your personal life as it is of the culture at large. When you finally embody a spirit of hope and courage, based on a wonderful sense of your potential for a good, beautiful, and meaningful life, then you start to see things differently, and so you start to feel and to act differently. And you also find that the world comes to meet you. Things change. And the change compounds.
If somebody were to ask me what the greatest insight is that I have gained as a therapist, now working in my second decade in the craft, I would say it is this notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People create repetitions, often without realising it, and those cycles come from their inward state, which acts as a filter for how they experience the world, how they then act or be, and how others and the world respond. People create worlds. You can create a heaven or a hell out of your life. And most of it is your own doing.
Make no mistake, life can cut people off at the knees. Life is indeed tragic, as the ancient Greeks saw. But there are multiple dimensions to life. We also have a profound capacity to shape it.
We have become divorced from nature, and even those who do not see it as a mere resource, often see it in rational terms, as a neutral object. They see something mechanical, rather than something that is alive. That view is rooted in modernism, in philosophers like Rene Descartes. To me, nature is mysterious and alive. This is a much older view. (And if you view Carl Jung as a sage, then you may consider it a new view as well.) Aristotle said that plants and animals and people have a purpose. That purpose is growth. Growth toward a fuller way of being, unfolding their rich potential. In humans this growth--or failure to grow--has emotional resonance. It is essential to our happiness that we continually advance.
Life without growth becomes intolerable to us. People who stop growing become rigid. They get old before their time. They become empty or unhappy or fearful or bitter. But growth needs to have balance and harmony to be good. This is where Aristotle is saw things more clearly than Sartre: there is growth that is naturally healthy, leading to well-being and flourishing, and there is growth that we may choose but which is bad, for example because it is one-sided. Consider wanting to grow in power—power to lead others—without at the same time growing in wisdom and compassion. This is why I often say that hope and courage—primary ingredients in realising your potential—need to be fed by things like love and gratitude rather than ego. Our orientation toward our potential must be rooted in love, rather than narcissism, if we are to be genuinely happy and to truly increase the happiness of others.
Much of our potential is universal. Which is to say, it is within every person. Beyond that, the combination of freedom with things like context, and predisposition, means that no two people will grow in exactly the same way. This is why it is so important to pay attention to your way of being and to listen inwardly to your nature: so that you can grow more rapidly and deeply, if you choose, by following the lines set out by your predispositions, by your native strengths. There is also context, and the person who pays close attention to the world around them will find rich possibilities close to hand. You only need to really open your eyes; and often we walk about with them closed.
People often feel they are being blown about by life. That their fate is decided by things external to them, and so they lose courage and they despair. Others imagine they can decide and control everything, and so they are shocked and harassed by the winds of fortune which laugh at their hubris. Some people, on the other hand, discover a profound source of strength and possibility within themselves, which when shaped by love and gratitude, give them hope and courage and a vision to move toward. They feel the power of the life in them, the power of their universal humanity and of their distinct nature flowing through them. They discover their agency, their ability to have power in their life, directed toward what they long for most. This is their potency, their potential. For such people who later look back at, this is a turning point in their lives, where things changed.
Anybody who has read my writing over the years knows that I give much space to a compassionate and just acceptance of the reality of tragedy in our lives. But this must be balanced with another acknowledgement: there are deep possibilities in every life. That life can be wonderful. It is deluded to imagine that life can be plain sailing. But it is also deluded to presume that there is nothing more to life than your despair and suffering. Perhaps there is much more in front of you than you can see. Once you begin to see and feel it, you can reach out, and take steps, and who knows where you will end up. This is a truth I have witnessed time and again. And which I know deeply in my own life. Perhaps you have to experience it, in which case now is a good time to start.