How to Curate Human Potential

You might have heard that the great Muhammad Ali died this past Friday at the age of 74 years. This was a man who, besides being the world heavyweight boxing champion three times, transformed what it meant to be a sports hero. Before, it meant being the strong and silent type. After: something entirely different.

Listen to the sorts of things Ali used to say:

“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”   

“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

But now listen to this one:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

And then

“If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

In other words, although he loved to crow about his greatness, he never thought that others couldn’t find their own special form of greatness too.

I think our Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson might have really liked him, for Emerson was also passionate about the depths of human potential and he, too, expressed his passion in controversial ways. His particular way was to deny godhood to Jesus. Emerson opposed how Christianity deified the person of Jesus because he believed that all people had the potential to be as good as Jesus. But if Jesus’ goodness came from his being an actual God, then what hope do mere mortals have? And so we give up. Which means we let ourselves off the hook. We sell ourselves short. We don’t do the hard work of curating the Jesus-like potentials that live within us and are just waiting to be released.

So people need to be educated out of that bad theology and educated into something better. “There is a time in every [person’s] education,” Emerson says, “when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Emerson is saying: Do the work. Get your hands dirty. The result is sweet.

But it is surprisingly hard to do. You would think that it should be easy to just stand there and shine, be the star that you are, but no. Unitarian Universalist poet May Sarton speaks to this:

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before [long].”

That is the ultimate context: hurry. Death is coming. But hearing the call of one’s true life—fulfilling it—is a journey that takes as long as it takes. You are dissolved and shaken. The latest incident of sexism or racism or homophobia or some other –ism proves the point.  You’ve worn other people’s faces. But what about your own? What does YOUR face look like? What are you afraid of?

Comedian Jim Carrey speaks about fear in connection with his father. He says, “My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.”

Jim Carrey’s dad wore another person’s face.

Fear about showing up to our lives is immense.

Sometimes the problem is that we’re already established in the world—we have cars and houses to pay for, we have relationships that have settled into predictable and comfortable patterns—and guess what? The heart balks at all of it; it wrestles, will not accept. Makes no sense to the mind, which knows that we have it made—the mind that knows we’ve achieved society’s vision of success. But the heart disagrees. The soul has its own truth to say. It feels in a deep and undeniable way that things are out of whack and that we are out of whack.

Nothing satisfies.

Waking up to the question of authenticity wakes us up to messiness. Dreams dry up, or fester and run, or stink, or crust and sugar over, or sag, or explode—anything but unfold naturally, as is their right. Or we can feel a global sense of dissatisfaction that others (and the inner critic) interpret as literal insanity. Or we can never seem to achieve stability and success, and so we get a slacker reputation.

Hearing the call of one’s true purpose is hard because it shakes us to the core. It becomes a fearful moment when it is clear that “the life I am living is not the life that wants to live in me.” Society defines a success path that goes one way, but you sense that you must go another way and follow the different drumbeat of your own heart.

But then, what is that mysterious way? And how to discern it?

“I learned many great lessons from my father,” says Jim Carrey, “not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

“Fear is going to be a player in your life,” he says, “but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.”

“Your job,” Jim Carrey says, “is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head and when the doors open in real life, just walk through it. Don’t worry if you miss your cue. There will always be another door opening. They keep opening.”

Perhaps some volunteer opportunity here is just one of these doors that Jim Carrey’s talking about. Just walk through. See where it takes you.

It’s love over fear. You can’t curate anyone’s potentials, or your own, without this sort of love. Love that sees through the apparent poverty of the present to the reality which is another thing entirely.

A Sufi wisdom story puts it like this:

A man in prison receives a gift. It is the gift of a prayer rug. What he wanted of course was a file, a crowbar or a key. But he began using the rug, doing the five-times prayer at dawn, at noon, mid-afternoon, after sunset and before going to sleep. Bowing, sitting up, bowing again…after many days of prayer he notices an odd pattern in the weave of the rug at the point where his head touches. He studies and meditates on that pattern, gradually discovering that it is a diagram of the lock…a picture of the lock that confines him to his cell and it shows how it works. Studying the diagram, he is able to escape. Anything you do every day can open into the deepest spiritual place, which is freedom.

Never lose faith. Keep opening the door in your head. I don’t have “10 steps to curating human potential” for you today. I just have love. I just have faith.

The Rev. Robert Fulghum, Unitarian Universalist minister and author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, gets it. He tells the story of his friend Larry Walters. “Walters,” says Fulghum, “is a truck driver, thirty three years old.”

He is sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard, wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to go up.  To be able to just rise right up in the air and see for a long way. 

But the time, money, education, and opportunity to be a pilot were not his.  Hang gliding was too dangerous, and any good place for gliding was too far away.  So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old aluminum lawn chair—the kind with the webbing and rivets.  Just like the one you’ve got in your backyard.?

The next chapter in this story is carried by the newspapers and television.  There’s old Larry Walters up in the air over Los Angeles.  Flying at last.  Really getting UP there.  Still sitting in his aluminum lawn chair, but it’s hooked on to forty-five helium-filled surplus weather balloons.  Larry has a parachute on, a CB radio, a six-pack of beer, some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a BB gun to pop some of the balloons to come down.  And instead of being just a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood, he shot up eleven thousand feet, right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport.?

Walters is a taciturn man.  When asked by the press why he did it, he said, “You can’t just sit there.”  When asked if he was scared, he answered, “Wonderfully so.”  When asked if he would do it again, he said, “Nope.”  And asked if he was glad that he did it, he grinned from ear to ear and said, “Oh, yes.”? 

That’s the story. We all just wish we could fly! But so often, the form that our true freedom takes looks very different from what we (or the world) expects.

So what. It is freedom.

You can’t just sit there.

With love, with faith, we care for ourselves. Finally we are living the life that wishes to live through us.

Says Muhammad Ali, “Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

I’ll close with another story about Ali. Listen, and think on freedom:

It’s from Cal Fussman, writer for Esquire magazine:

Muhammad Ali came through the double doors into the living room of his hotel suite on slow, tender steps. [He’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s years ago, in 1980, and the disease had this once great athlete in its grip.] I held out my hand. He opened his arms. Ali lowered himself into a wide, soft chair, and I sat on an adjacent sofa. “I’ve come,” I said, “to ask about the wisdom you’ve taken from all you’ve been through.”

Ali seemed preoccupied with his right hand, which was trembling over his right thigh, and he did not speak.

“George Foreman told me that you were the most important man in the world. When I asked him why, he said that when you walked into a room, it didn’t matter who was there—presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, movie stars—everybody turned toward you. He said you were the most important man in the world because you made everybody else’s heart beat faster.”

The shaking in Ali’s right hand seemed to creep above his elbow. Both of his arms were quivering now, and his breaths were short and quick.

I leaned in awkwardly, not knowing quite what to do. Half a minute passed in silence. I wondered if I should call for his wife. 

Ali stooped over, and now his whole body was trembling and his breaths were almost gasps.

“Champ! You okay? You okay?”

Ali’s head lifted and slowly turned to me with the smile of an eight-year-old.

“Scared ya, huh?”