Liberating Potential

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In the blissfully bucolic English village where I found myself living a few years ago, there were only two reasonable sources for takeout when my workday went long. On the low end was the fish and chips counter, affectionately known to Brits as the chippie, where a prior experience with cod made haddock the only wise option. A few paces up the street and the quality scale, however, was an Indian restaurant, a self-styled fine dining establishment with an impressive ten-page, full-color menu.

Indian food is to Brits what Mexican food is to Americans. In the same way that our cousins across the pond know what a taco is, I too was familiar with curry when I arrived in England. Few Englishmen, however, are acquainted with the burrito, and many were alarmed at my profound ignorance of the basics of Indian cuisine.

When ordering takeout alone on a Tuesday evening, the expansive menu threatened to incapacitate me. What was a lowly Yankee like me to do with twenty chicken curry options and fourteen manager specials with names like Jardaloo Sali Boti? I had so many options, so much potential for choice, that the resulting option paralysis once led me to warm up leftover soup rather than place an order. 

THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

Staring at the ten sprawling pages of the Indian menu during those hungry English nights, I came to a clearer understanding of what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” As modern people, we place a high value on our capacity to choose. We don’t want anyone to limit our ability to make free choices, and we insist that this capacity for choice is the essence of freedom. But many of us have found that this capacity for unlimited choice does not necessarily bring liberation, but an altogether new kind of bondage. 

This happens, for example, when we scroll through our social media feeds and see all the things that we could be doing, our cognitive energies soon worn down by the multiplicity of options. Ironically, instead of choosing something, many of us end up retreating “into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment,” as Tim Wu puts it. What writer, faced with the frigid emptiness of a Word document and the siren song of their Twitter feed, has not found this to be the case? The “freedom” to scroll often kicks to the curb the greater freedom to write.

In my frustration over this, I’ve come to D.C. Schindler and Wendell Berry for aid. These two thinkers have helped me realize how, in our option-abundant world, we are often quite fuzzy in our thinking about the nature of freedom and choice. In a world of possibility, we would do well to embrace the liberation of limitation.

ACTION AND POTENTIAL

Let’s begin with a question: What is more important, having the potential to choose from a variety of options, or actually acting to choose something? 

Here in the modern world, we tend to believe that potential is more important than action. Whether we’re searching for a college, shopping at the mall, picking out a show on Netflix, or even looking at the results of a pregnancy test, we see the capacity for choice as the essence of freedom. If my potential to choose is limited—if my choice is determined by someone or something else, or even limited by prior choices I’ve made—I am not free. Potential is more important than action because freedom is the state where no one is stopping me from choosing.

This is a widely held notion in our culture. It is also a remarkably new idea. If you asked a panel of philosophers and religious sages throughout history to share their thoughts about action and potential, they would insist that we’ve got it precisely backwards. To the classical mind in particular (think figures such as Plato and Aristotle), action is always more important than potential. They would wholeheartedly affirm what philosopher D.C. Schindler calls “the absolute priority of actuality to potency (and thus to power and possibility)”.

To understand this, let’s say I hired a life coach and asked her, “Do I have the potentialto be a prize-winning body builder?” Here in 2019, she might assume that I am hiring her to say, “Of course you have the potential. You can be anything that you want to be and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you can dream it, you can be it!”

If fruitfulness were instantaneous and always sure, hope would be an unnecessary virtue.

Phillip Johnston

With little more than my question to go on, however, the classical mind would be more circumspect. Upon hearing about my desire to be a bodybuilder, Aristotle would take a good look at my life and observe that I rarely go to the gym and that I sometimes eat my fair share of kettle chips at 10:30 in the morning. They would affirm that I have more potential to be a bodybuilder than, say, a hamster does, but they would insist that my potential is right now quite unreal. Sure, I have potential, but it’s currently an impotent potential

But all is not lost. If I were to take action, if I were to trade kettle chips for kale and submit myself to rigorous physical training, my true potential would actually start to strengthen. Action liberates potential.

The ancient sages are right. To the extent that we fail to choose something and commit ourselves to it, we are simply wallowing in impotent potential—we are not actually free. True potential only begins to emerge after we act. We do not become free by dwelling in possibility, but by making contact with something real.

FORM AND FREEDOM

To understand more clearly the way action liberates potential, it is helpful to understand the vital relationship between form and freedom. A form is simply a set of limitations that contains and cultivates real potential. If we forsake forms, we abandon the freedom that can only be found within them.

The most common example of this is the fish in water. The water is the form that liberates the fish’s freedom, its potential to swim and flourish as a creature of the sea. Some hypothetical fish might desire to be free from the limitations of water—“Don’t tell me I can’t be a land fish!”—but there is no real freedom outside of the ocean, only impotent potential.

If a pianist yearns for the freedom to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, she must submit to the form that liberates it: days, months, and years of practice under the wise authority of a teacher who knows how to cultivate the potential for playing Bach. After stepping into this form, the pianist will be limited in her capacity to choose other things. She’ll miss out on a few get-togethers with friends and will likely be ignorant of the latest social media memes, but each sacrifice is a tiny liberation of her freedom to play the Goldbergs and bring delight to all who listen.

The same is true of poetry. As Wendell Berry notes, a poem must be made of words, it cannot be about everything, and “if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry.” This is the form. The poet must submit tothese limitations, as well as to his editors who will place their keen eyes and red pens on his verse before publication. 

Additionally, unless the poet is writing in free verse, he must also choose a literal poetic form—a 3-phrase haiku, a 5-line limerick, or a 14-line sonnet. The priest and poet Malcolm Guite could choose to write a lengthy theological treatise about how Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches, but in his capable hands, the constraints of sonnet form—three quatrains and a couplet—provoke something lovelier than many homilies:

How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?

This is how form nurtures the potential of language to bring forth poetry. Form liberates beauty.

POETRY AND MARRIAGE

Perhaps you’ve run into a version of the successful thirty-something guy who goes on regular dates, but just can’t seem to settle down. Part of him longs for the intimacy of a long-term relationship, but another part is deeply fearful of how marriage would close off his access to other options. Won’t the form of marriage limit his freedom, particularly the freedom to choose a different spouse if it turns out he’s made a mistake?

The anxiety behind this question is ever-present for all of us whether we are choosing a spouse, an artistic medium, a church community, or even the next novel to read. Forms limit our capacity to choose. Entering into a form means not entering into another one. In an age riddled with FOMO, the first thing we think about is how much we will miss out on by choosing one thing instead of another.

But form does not exist to limit freedom. Just as exercise yields strength and practice cultivates musicianship, the purpose of form is to liberate the bounty of the unexpected. This is the deep wisdom of Wendell Berry’s little-known essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms” (found in the collection Standing by Words). 

Like poetry, Berry writes, marriage has a form: “the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death.” This is the “technical” aspect of the form. Like all forms, however, marriage is more than simply a list of boundaries. The boundaries are there to serve “an opening, a generosity toward possibility” at the center.

These two aspects of form, the technical and the generous, are inseparable. No person can ever take joy in the second without welcoming the first. As Berry insists, “To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility.”

In marriage, the technical aspect of the form tells the couple that when they have their first big fight, bolting for the door is not an option. Rather than cut and run, they will need to get creative. With patience, forbearance, and the hard-won wisdom of other couples, they must trust that the form’s generous aspect will one day unfurl, that unexpected goodness and unknown gifts are possible for their relationship. Fidelity to the form means fidelity to each other, and it drives the couple beyond what they have “the poor power to expect” in the aftermath of their clash. It drives them into hope.

Like a gardener, each day of fidelity to one’s spouse is another day to till the soil in hope that fresh flowers will spring up from the ground of love. Growth is not automatic, nor is it ever guaranteed. But if fruitfulness were instantaneous and always sure, hope would be an unnecessary virtue. 

As Berry writes,

A certain awesome futurity, then, is the inescapable condition of word-giving [i.e. marriage vows, a couple’s entrance into the form of marriage]… for we speak into no future that we know, much less into one that we desire, but into one that is unknown. But that it is unknown requires us to be generous toward it, and requires our generosity to be full and unconditional. The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known.

The dogged hope of marriage is that over days, months, and years of self-giving love, a union unimaginable on the the couple’s wedding day might come into being. “The faith,” Berry writes, “is that by staying and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.”

This “different and larger” truth is what a world of options and perpetual FOMO constantly prevents us from seeing: that fidelity to people, places, and practices—these commitments that close us off from other options—actually liberate us to receive previously unknown goodness into our personal and communal life.

“The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known.” 

Remember this whenever you’re next faced with the paradox of choice. Committing to that single thing—writing the story, finishing the poem, painting the picture, attending to the needs of your neighbor—might mean that you lose some options, but it will prepare the ground of your life for good things you do not yet have the power to expect. Remember, too, to seek wisdom from those who know and love you. When it comes to the bounty of the yet-unknown, they will be the ones most able to help you “hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome,” as Wendell Berry urges.

I discovered this, silly as it sounds, when I took my takeout anxiety to my British friend Tom, a longtime curry veteran. He coaxed me into ordering Duck Tak-a-Tan, a curry from Pakistan with a slightly sweet and sour sauce enhanced with tamarind. Not yet a duck connaisseur, I was quite conscious when placing my first order that “we speak into no future that we know, much less into one that we desire, but into one that is unknown.”

But Tom and Wendell were right. Unexpected goodness, indeed.

Phillip Johnston is an editor, researcher, and speaker based in East Nashville. A former staff member at English L’Abri, Phillip is also the curator of Three Things, a newsletter digest of three resources to help readers better engage with God, neighbor, and culture. In his spare time, he geeks out on slow movies, Bach cantatas, liturgical theology, and all things food.

Phillip will be giving a lecture with a similar theme this Saturday evening with the Friends of L’Abri Nashville group. If you are interested in learning more about Friends of L’Abri Nashville you can find that here. If you are in Nashville and would like to participate in the dinner, discussion and lecture on Saturday evening, please reach out to Rob at rlwheel(at)gmail.com.


5 Comments

  1. Janka

    I don’t think I have ever thought of hope as a virtue… Thank you Phillip for pointing it out, means a lot right now! Janka, a fellow L’Abrian

  2. Phillip Johnston

    @phillip-johnston

    You’re welcome, Janka. I was thinking more about hope as a virtue recently after reading a book of letters written by Stanley Hauerwas to his godson. He has this to say: “We need each other because we cannot hope alone. We learn to hope by trusting others who have learned to hope by doing the same. Optimism is the attitude of those who isolate themselves from others, while hope is the virtue that takes pleasure in our need for others. It’s often true that the imagination—on which hope depends, and which hope makes possible—also makes possible my discovery that I need others. For friends make my life rich with possibilities that I otherwise couldn’t imagine.”

    I love that final line. Friendship is a form that enables us to hope, a form with so many generous possibilities.

  3. JCHSpencer

    @jchspencer

    Phillip, this article came at just the right moment for my husband and me! We need to make some changes in a few different areas of life, and we had become overwhelmed by choices; everything seemed like a genuine possibility. I especially found the concept of accepting a particular “form” as a doorway to freedom. Thank you for putting some complex concepts into easily-understood images–food and fish! 🙂

  4. Phillip Johnston

    @phillip-johnston

    You’re welcome, Julie – and I’m so glad you found the article helpful. I hope the decision making process is going well for you and you’re husband, and that you’re on the way to finding a different freedom than perhaps you expected.

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