Friday, October 11, 2013

The Potential Rut Of Potential

I recently spent some time with an elderly gentleman who was reflecting on his life.  His reflection was not prompted by health concerns or end of life considerations; in fact he had been pondering the state of his life for better than a year prior to my arrival in his living room.   Not long into our conversation it became abundantly clear that he was eat up with guilt and regret.  His life was not at all how he had hoped it would have turned out, but strangely enough it was exactly what he felt he deserved. 

’Potential’ is to the future what ‘almost’ is to the past: the undone”

The living room was dark, illuminated only by the light of an overcast day seeping in through his broken screen door and the flicker of his TV.  The smell of decades of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air along with shame and despair.  For better than 30 years he had struggled with alcohol and gambling.  He was 30 years divorced from his only wife and mother to his 4 children.  The high point of the past 6 months was finally receiving disability for something that had long plagued him.  From his worn out recliner he relayed his story.  It flowed from him effortlessly.  It was one he had undoubtedly punished himself with when no one was around, which was often.  He had been happily married, actively involved in a church, had just built a house with several acres he was successfully farming to supplement his income from a job he loved. Then he said something that sent my mind in a whirl. He said “It all changed August, 1977”. 

If you’re like me, I bet your thinking there was a death in the immediate family or a tragic accident that left him crippled.  Surely there was something nearly cataclysmic that happened that was simply out of his control resulting in a tragically wasted 30 years.  If you are like me, then you too would be wrong.  As it turns out he took a chance in 1977, at the urging of family and friends, which ultimately failed.  He claims God told him to leave the opportunity alone, but he went anyway.  He has grown to believe that his current state of life is the ongoing punishment for his disobedience.  He frequently asks God’s forgiveness for what happened 30 years ago, but I believe he has never forgiven himself.  While I could elaborate on some of those God and forgiveness issues, I want to draw your attention to a hidden danger in this story.

“Doesn’t every choice have the ability to change your future forever?”

This gentleman has hung the results of the last half of his life on one choice he made 30+ years ago.  He blames everything that has happened to him on that choice.  Since then bitterness and resentment towards those who encouraged that choice has only grown, along with his own regret.  That one wrong choice has become his excuse for underachieving ever since.  He has defined his life by a wrong decision made decades ago.  He struggles in the rut of what could have been, what should have been: the “almost”.  When the time is right I will challenge the reality he has built his life around with this question.  “You place a lot of weight on that one decision you made in 1977, but what about all of the choices you’ve made since then?”  Doesn’t every choice have the ability to change your future forever?  The bible declares in Lamentations 3:22-23 It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.  With each new day come new decision opportunities.  

This man’s life has challenged me to not define myself by one choice or one event in my life, past or future.  Future?  Yes.  If we’re not careful our life’s potential can become our defining characteristic i.e. “what I’m going to do”.  I can live being frustrated with where I am because I tell myself and everyone around me that I’m only here until something better comes along or until someone recognizes my potential.  I can just as easily blame my lack of achievement on something unachieved in my future as I can on something unachieved in my past.

"There are a lot of choices to be made between now and where we ultimately end up"

“Potential” is to the future what “almost” is to the past: the undone.  Both can motivate you or numb you into inactivity.  Either way there are a lot of choices to be made between now and where we ultimately end up.  If all we do is talk about “what we’re going to do”, one day that mantra is going to become the “what could have been”.  While I certainly don’t want to get stuck in the past replaying lost opportunities or failed attempts, neither do I want to get stuck in the rut of potential, never able to reach it.  Phrases most often heard in the rut of potential are “not yet”, “some day”, or “when things calm down”.  I don’t know, and I hope I never find out, when the moment is that someone’s greatest potential becomes his or her greatest regret.


  1. Bro. Ben, I love the way you meld your wonderful way with words and your educational focus with the practical advice you learned from your grandparents! There are some points in this post that I could almost picture your grandfather saying.

    1. MotherT - Thank you. I can think of few compliments that carry as much weight as reflecting my grandparents! I'm thankful for SS teachers and Quiz coaches like you who further cultivated my "potential" and helped me grow.