Potential feels by definition to be an absence, paradoxically substantial and fathomless. How can the promise of something that hasn’t even manifested be so weighty? It’s living with something alive inside you that’s buried and gasping to see the light.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, “Harlem”
Loss of potential is my biggest fear. I’m a white 90s kid—born special, with a sense that I had something so unique to offer the world that I would probably change it forever. I was born with a universe of gifts, and one by one, unexplored and unused, they’ve atrophied, synapses efficiently pruned.
I’m the child of a man who probably thought of himself a poet—a poet who never wrote any poetry that he shared with the world, or with me. What does it mean to be poetical? Beauty, depth, eternity all seem to be implied. I have a vague sense that he believed he was a poet, that his life was poetry. Overall, a pretty adaptive way to frame one’s experiences. Profundity is ascribed to errors and false starts, without the painful, boring, frustrating process of rewriting and polishing. One can stand stolidly behind all of the poor choices. Everything becomes tragically beautiful, and seems to gesture toward something profound and permanent.
I hate that I see Profound Tragedy in his life. It seems unfair that I can still be seduced into romanticizing his failures while being crushed by the existential responsibility, the horror of knowing that I am only what I do. There is no cosmic or earthly reward to myself or anyone else for good intentions, no punishments for my neurotic failures. My values are my actions; my actions are my values.
I’m haunted by a sense that like me, he probably felt he was special. I certainly thought of him and think of him that way. He was extra sensitive, too sensitive for this world: “too weird to live, too rare to die” (Hunter S. Thompson). Like me, he dreamed of a Waldenesque existence, transcendent of the mundane rituals of capitalism and mass culture. Yet his failure to commit fully either to the quotidian necessities of our lives, or the quixotic habits he idolized, was his life’s great tragedy. This romantic intuition that it was his sensitivity and vulnerability that rendered him impotent is absurd and self-defeating.
My dad was never a person to me; he only ever lived in my imagination. And now he lives on in my worst fears, my self-destructive thoughts and actions, and the great sense that I have so much to give. The simultaneous knowledge that even those poets who give us so much can never give us enough. “Enough” is a word like “potential”—defined by promise that, as soon as it is realized, is revealed to be immaterial and inadequate. The people who accomplished the artistic feats that most haunt my psyche are still gone, and even mostly forgotten. Sylvia Plath captures my current angst completely, and I will let her have the last word:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar