The Art of Wasting Potential

One of the most wicked destructive forces, psychologically speaking, is unused creative power … If someone has a creative gift and out of laziness, or for some other reason, doesn’t use it, the psychic energy turns to sheer poison. That’s why we often diagnose neuroses and psychotic diseases as not-lived higher possibilities.

Marie-Louise von Franz

This morning I had an interesting thought. Should people feel obligated to live up to their highest potential in a society that doesn’t support them doing so?

For as long as I remember, I have pushed myself in whatever areas I felt were worthy of my focus and attention. And whenever I felt it was time to walk away from something, I’d leave with the same level of conviction, making sure to kick the dust off my feet on the way out. In many ways, I took the Jesus teaching of “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” very seriously. Very seriously. So seriously in fact that I can tell you that without a doubt, I was willing to die for whatever I held to be, what I’ll call, the impersonal Truth–the Truth that didn’t care about my feelings or anyone else’s, the Truth that is always true and will reveal itself eventually whether in my lifetime or in some undisclosed future.

Now let me say that I didn’t reserve my convictions for anything temporary like people’s opinions. I didn’t even care about my own opinion on things. What I was aiming for was aligning myself with Universal principles and making my decisions accordingly. I didn’t concern myself with temporary outcomes or people’s conditional approval. I just wanted to discover reality and go wherever it led me–even if it was death.

Needless to say, this approach to life was not too common. And because of it, my motivations rarely matched with my peers or even my family for that matter. Often accused of being too serious or an old man in a little child’s body, I was dedicated to this course of thought. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to piece together at least part of the reason why I was like this.

The unexamined life is not worth living.


I don’t know where I first read this quote from Socrates, but it resonated with me completely. And it still does today, albeit within a different framework.

I now think that I must examine my own life in order to experience it as worth living. Whereas, I once thought if others didn’t examine their own lives they weren’t worth engaging. Nothing bothered me more than being in a conversation with someone who had what I considered to be regurgitated thoughts and opinions. I really couldn’t abide by it. I didn’t care if someone had an opinion that differed from mine or even one that diametrically opposed mine as long as it was the result of that person’s examination. Any other method of arriving at one’s opinion seemed to be just a pure waste of human potential. And if the person’s life was unexamined, I felt that the fruit of that life was a waste product even if they had achieved everything the world calls successful.

Being born shortly after a decade of Black leaders being assassinated and growing up in a society that communicated that looking like me could quickly cut a good forty to fifty years off of my life, I was hyper aware of my own mortality. Combining that with being an overly active church participant with strong ties to the local Islamic community, led me think a lot about what I could do with the time I have here. As I’ve spoken about before, I didn’t really expect to live past 18. So I didn’t want to waste what little time I had on anything I deemed worthless. Besides, if I was going to die young, I didn’t want my mother and grandmother to have to lie at my funeral. Hence the seriousness and the ardent desire to examine my life—no matter how short it might possibly be. So I decided to keep my eyes open to everything that passed my gaze. And what I observed disturbed me.

It didn’t take me long to observe that most of the people I knew weren’t paying attention at all. In fact, it appeared to me that most folks were actively working to be distracted. Before I knew words like systemic and corruption and denial and projection, I saw them acted out everywhere and it angered me. But it took me a long time to figure out why. Most of us had been lied to.

Switching gears a bit, let me ask you, how do you know if someone is living up to their potential? Where does potential begin in a person’s life—from the moment of their first breath or from the moment they become self aware? And does everyone have the same potential?

In America, I know that we like to espouse the notion that this is a country where anyone can live up to their highest potential if they just work hard enough. We love one off stories about people coming from the pits to the palace using only their will and their wits. But, there are many other stories of folks who have poured everything that was in them trying to get ahead just a little bit while the same nation that tells them they can be anything they want to be denies them the opportunities to do so. If you’re paying attention, it can be crazy-making.

Once I got clear on this, I realized that people weren’t distracting themselves because they weren’t examining their lives. Many of them were distracting themselves precisely because they had examined their lives and they were tired of the agony of defeat. They were tired of visions violated and dreams deferred and they needed escape in whatever form they could get it. Did that mean they were wasting their potential? No. It meant that they didn’t know how to measure it because they were living in an environment with a skewed value system. They weren’t wasting their potential. America was and is.

Recently a good friend told me that he started out at a company making somewhere around $1.50 an hour and that when he retired 48 years later he was making more than $16. I could hear the pride in his voice when he told me. So, I didn’t let on that I was about to cry hearing that. This was on the same day that the $15 minimum wage was voted down.

When I heard that this didn’t pass, I wasn’t surprised. But I’m flirting with disappointment. As a person who still is examining my life even in the midst of pain, I have long observed the futility of disappointment. So, I rarely draw on its energies for motivation.

There can’t be great disappointment without great love.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Before Rev. King was murdered, he was trying to organize America’s poor people. Since learning this, I have been convinced that this was the campaign that really led to his death. Imagine poor people of every walk of life working together with the support of their better resourced partners advocating for and achieving an economy that actually fosters potential rather than fight it. I can imagine it and I know that it is possible. And that is why I am tempted to draw energy from my disappointment in order to be a part of the conversation about a better way.

In one of the posts I shared recently, When the Economy No Longer Serves Humanity, Create a New One…, I reintroduced a program my friend Scott Smith created called the Financial Freedom Act. It is a vision of a new economy that facilitates our citizens recognizing and living into their highest potential. When I heard what Scott was working on and read his book, The Emerging Kingdom: An Economic Guidebook to Building a Nation That is a Better Place to Live, I was encouraged by the thought that there was a goal toward which I could aim my energies in terms when it came to promoting a more equitable environment.

It often angers me that so much in life is measured in dollars and nonsense. Whenever I participate in our current economic model, I can’t help but bring to my exchanges the awareness of what our current system was built on.

Since becoming conscious of this, I have worked to not allow money to be my motivator for the choices I make. It’s not that I am opposed to receiving money in exchange for offering something of value to people. But I have chosen to not let it be my guide. As Jesus said, “You can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve God and mammon. You will hate one and love the other.” So from the American value system’s perspective that makes me a failure. But I’m cool with that.

To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.


Given what I have examined in my life so far, I have come to see that Jesus was on point. And I agree with Confucius. So I have asked myself what it would take to create a society where wealth and honor would not be a disgrace? What would it take to create a society that is an incubator of potential rather than an incinerator of it? In my efforts to figure that out, I have struggled with how to communicate the possibility of such a place. The poem below is my attempt to articulate that struggle and what I think it will take to stay the course.

On Being a Moneymaker

All these years I’ve been living life

Like money isn’t real

Never making decisions based on it

But focusing more on how I feel

I’ve walked away from high paying gigs

To work in shipping and receiving

Just because I wanted to

No thought of what I was achieving

I’ve disappointed around the world

For not fulfilling my potential

All the while feeling quite at peace

With an air that’s presidential

I felt just like a rich man

Doing what I wanted to do

Never thinking that my bank account

Meant my riches were not true

I saw life as an adventure

A journey to be savored

All I needed was provided for

As if I lived a life of favor

Then someone brought to my attention

That I was not living life to plan

I should be a millionaire by now

Getting everything I can

But instead I’m still just bopping along

Doing what I do

Believing that everything is working out

In accordance with heaven’s view

But lately I’ve been wondering

What if I’ve been wrong

What if seeking Truth is a task for fools

And life was about Benjamins all along

Then that puts me way behind

I may never win the race

All my friends are miles ahead

While I was running in One Place

What if love of money isn’t evil

But love of God is the distraction?

What if I’ve been “bait and switched”

And missed my chance at satisfaction?

I could have been a moneymaker

The one calling all the shots

Instead of trying to know my soul

And purify my thoughts

I could have been stacking paper

Collecting fees and cashing checks

Instead of studying root causes

So that I can undo their ill effects

When I was busy seeking the Kingdom

Stuff was added to another

It might turn out I’m the prodigal

Being shamed by the other brother

What if YOLO* was the real deal

While I was thinking I’d live forever?

Which had me living fancy free

When I should have been under pressure?

When I was considering the lilies

And the birds of the air

I should have considered my 401k

Instead of casting all my cares

Well at least that’s what I’ve been wondering

For at least the past few years

When people were looking down on me

For not passing up my peers

They tell me that with a mind like mine

They would’ve managed so much more

But I said if their mind was just like mine

They wouldn’t be keeping score

The fact is that while I’m wondering

If my choices were mistakes

I do so from Eternity

Which is beyond both time and space

I can always be a moneymaker

In fact I’ve been one at other times

That’s why I know the value it really has

Comes not from what it buys

Money is a form of expression

For what you hold most dear

So what we have or do not have

Can’t make our riches clear

So the best measure of my worth

Is the measure of my love

And how much I can give of it

Is all I should be thinking of.

© Copyright 2015 Pedro S. Silva II

*You Only Live Once

4 replies »

  1. Dollars and nonsense”!!! I am gonna have to borrow that.

    Yeah… why is “potential” measured in money? Wasn’t the case IN THE BEGINING. Value was measured by the image the Adam (the man) bore – the couple, actually. They bore the naked, loving, humble, and vulnerable TRUSTING image of God. That had ultimate value. Even the creation groans waiting for a look at that again. Water firms up under the feet of the image bearer. Flowers bloom along the path of the image bearer. The image bearer commands the sun to stop in the sky.

    Can’t put a dollar figure on that.

    You know?

    I mighta wrote a post, and if not, I meant to… where I tell about my experience watching the Antiques Traveling Road Show.

    Please indulge my ignorant and broken memory of it, but he point will still be clear, I think.

    I saw this one episode one evening where they were featuring this fantastic quilt found in an attic and gently restored to glory. But the owner didn’t have a clue about its history, its meaning, its influence … ITS VALUE. But the expert educated the owner AND us viewers.

    It was an elaborate piece of art mostly pure white with this very radiant and unique pigment of blue dye. The dye, though, was rare. It came from Hawaii, and there is a rare flower there that produces a nectar which can be made into this fancy dye. The “indigenous peoples of wherever” perfected the technic over the course of centuries. In the middle 1800s a school of craftspeople perfected a special weave for the fabric and they quilted with a unique pattern scheme.

    Quilts of this sort have been given as gifts to monarchs in foreign lands as part of peace treaties and so forth. They were given as dowries and all manner of museums around the world seek after these treasures.

    I mean, the expert blathered on and on and on and on with significant point after significant point. Each point more thrilling than the last!

    And yet, at every pause, I would catch my breath and like coming up for air, I would ask, “Yes, but how much?”

    And of course the expert saved the best for last. He finally unveiled a dollar value.

    This treasure found in the attic would be valued at no less than $10,000!

    Holy COW!

    No… literally, HOLY COW! Cow of gold!

    Funny… I totally lost interest in the very next split second. I was ready for the next thing. It wasn’t until a couple hours later that it dawned on my just how special that find was on SO MANY levels, but they were all made to serve the punchline – $$$!


    My life insurance company does that with my life too.


    • You can borrow is for sure. I don’t know you. But short a couple of years of commenting on each other’s posts, it seems like we’re off similar minds on some issues. The best thing about so many people doing harm in Jesus’ name is it’s got me feeling like I have to push myself to give voice to something more expansive.


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