I have previously written about the difference between how the world is and how we imagine it could be. Today I was thinking about the problem from the microcosmic point of view—the difference between what I am and what I wish I could be. Why is so much of our potential never actualized?
In response, I immediately think of Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency. Roughly speaking Aristotle thought that everything is a composite of form and matter. The form is the pattern or structure of a thing and the matter is what makes something an individual thing. Everything you see around you is a formed matter. Then he associated matter with potency and actuality with form. The idea is that matter has the potential to be actualized in different forms. For our purposes, the important point is that just as acorns have the potential to become oak trees, humans have potentials that they may or may not actualize.
My first thought is that all of us have the potential to be many things but human finitude demands that only some of our potential is actualized. This seems endemic to the human condition. Perhaps you and I could have been physicians or violinists or accountants. Or better golfers of tennis or soccer players. No worries, we can’t have been and done everything we wanted to.
But my shortcomings go beyond having or not having a particular career or being better at a sport. Why I am not more generous, patient, kind, gentle, profound, or loving? This isn’t to say that I don’t possess some of these qualities, but if I’d like to be a better person, to possess one or more of these qualities in greater abundance, why is this so hard?
The first answer that comes to mind is that my long evolutionary history, encoded deep within my genes, presents a barrier to much of what I’d like to be. For example, I’m wired to be somewhat selfish, territorial, and aggressive. Still, it seems that I should be able to overcome many of these less noble parts of my nature. Indeed Aristotle thought that potential can be actualized by taking the right action. But it is both hard to know which is the right action and commit to that course of action even if you know it’s the right one.
In the end, I don’t know exactly why we, like the world we live in, find this gap between what we imagine and what is. The gap between the potential for good and the actuality of so much evil. As Russell so eloquently put it “… the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be.” I suppose all we can do is try to make our little part of the world a little better. That’s not much of an answer after 60 years of education but it’s about the best I can come up with today. Perhaps our descendants will arrive at a greater understanding of reality.
In the meantime, looking at all the shortcomings both in the world and in myself, maybe the sentiments expressed by the serenity prayer are about the best we can do.