You cannot begin to achieve while you are still exploring and deciding where to invest your life’s energy. And the problem is that we like to keep all possibilities open. It is very difficult to admit that you are not going to achieve something that has the appeal of childhood fantasy. It is very difficult to admit that a number of possibilities must be sacrificed forever. That’s the hard part: at some point, the circle must be closed.
Because the natural mode of childhood is to believe that everything is possible, because the child is certain that he can and will be anything and everything he wants to be, the immature side of our nature remains attached to that world of potential.
Maturity means realizing that in order to have what you can have, you have to sacrifice all the alternatives.
For a man to get married, he must sacrifice a relationship with every woman on earth except the one he marries. The immature mind focuses on the fantasy of all those other relationships; the mature mind focuses on the beauty of the relationship which will be built with the woman he marries.
The immature mind would rather have nothing as long as it can live in the fantasy that all is possible; the mature mind is ready to give up the illusion of open potential to achieve and have that limited amount that it is possible to have. The immature mind dwells on the excitement of dreaming of every relationship that could be and has none; the mature mind closes the circle, chooses the best that can be chosen and has that which is real.
Again, immaturity means dreaming of all the options and actualizing none; maturity means achieving the wisdom to understand that all the options must be sacrificed except those that can become real. In fact, the false options must be sacrificed so that the genuine ones can become real.
A child cannot understand this. A child lives in the belief that all is his. A child cannot sacrifice the total range of possibilities to have what he can have. Have you ever seen a child standing outside a delicatessen clutching a coin in his hand, dreamily examining all the delicious-looking buns in the window? That is a happy child; he may stand there for ages enjoying the process of choosing which he is going to buy. But when he has finally decided and is about to hand over his money and receive the bun he has chosen, a strange thing happens. Suddenly, all the other buns look more delicious than the one he has chosen. Before, they all glittered with promise; now, the one he has chosen becomes dull and all the others begin to glow brightly! That is a miserable child; he cannot handle the knowledge that he cannot have all.
This is a deep problem; we are all that child. We tend to focus on the promise of infinite potential rather than the reality of finite achievement. But the nature of the world is that in order to achieve anything, all potential must be sacrificed. You must pay away the money to buy the goods, you cannot have both the money and what it can buy. This is a finite world of limited options; the problem is to decide which are the correct ones to pursue.
Picture the visitor to a vacation resort with one day to enjoy. He wakes early intent on getting the most out of the day: there are rivers to swim, lakes to sail, mountains to climb. But one day is enough to do only one of those things, not all of them. The mature individual makes a decision; for better or worse, without knowing which activity will really turn out to be the best, he must choose one. And so he does, and gets on with it and does it fully. But the immature individual, the childish person, may spend most of the day trying to decide! Each activity seems more attractive than the next, and a good decision seems impossible. And very often this type of person will not enjoy whatever option he chooses: whatever he does he will be sure that the others would have been better…
That is life. You cannot do it all. The world beckons with so many options, so much beauty and so much power. But only the part of it that is really your unique part is real; you must never forget that. You must decide what is for you, and then get on with it and not look back. You must claim your part of the world’s work and do it as if that is all there is. The rest belongs to others; take care of your part and the rest will be done. Sooner or later, but it will all be done; and when it is, your part will glow in the entirety of the structure, and your experience will swell to the proportions of the universe.
This tension between potential and actual exists in all aspects of life:
Money: money is power, potential. In fact, that is all money is. And therein lies its attraction – if I have a lot of money, I have a lot of potential, a lot of options. And that is why many people want money even if they do not intend to buy any specific thing: it is the power of unlimited options that appeals. But a mature individual is interested in money only for what it buys; such a person will be happy with enough money for his real needs and when he has the required amount for any particular need, he spends it and buys the needed item. He is happy to give away the potential for the goods.
Life itself: the happiness of the birth of a child is that a life of potential has begun, a whole life lies ahead. True, this newborn child has not achieved anything yet, but the moment is happy – he has a lifetime in which to achieve, the options seem almost unlimited. And old age: that is sad because the options have shrunk, the old person has very little power, very few options left, perhaps only enough strength to turn his chair a little closer to the sun. And the end of life itself is the ultimate closing of all potential entirely.
But that is not the Jewish view. We regard birth as happy, yes; the potential is enormous and of course it is essential. But this child has achieved nothing yet, he has acquired nothing of the world and built none of his character and spirit.
In fact, this is an anxious moment. And old age in the Jewish view: certainly, potential has shrunk, but this person has achieved!
If this old person who sits almost powerless at the end of a lifetime has spent every day of life achieving, building, working to develop the inner self of the mind and spirit as well as the outer world, this old age is not sad; on the contrary: the money has been spent but the goods have been bought. Those goods of character and correct actions which have been built during a lifetime of toil have been acquired, they are forever. Our view of life is that it gets happier as potential is converted to reality, not sadder as options close and old age approaches.
In the literature of the world, youth is always described as springtime and summer, and old age as winter. After all, spring is when things are moving in nature and winter is when things are slowing down. But in Torah, it is just the opposite: youth is described as winter and old age as summer. King Solomon talks of “The days of my winter” when referring to his youth. And the reason should be obvious: in the winter the hard ground is broken and the seeds are planted, but nothing has grown yet; in the summer the crop is ready for reaping. That is the correct view of life; and the only one that can prevent the sadness and gloom of life’s gradual ebbing deepening as it progresses.
As long as we insist on keeping that circle open, keeping all possibilities alive always, we can achieve nothing.
They tell a story about a peasant farmer in old Russia. This poor individual stood weeping by the roadside, a farmer with no land to farm. As he stood there without a future, the Czar happened to ride past in his royal coach. He saw the peasant and his tears and was moved to stop and ask the cause of the man’s grief. When he heard that the problem was the lack of land to farm, he drove a stake into the ground where they stood and gave the overawed peasant three similar stakes, telling him to walk as far as he wished and then to drive a second stake into the earth, turn, walk on again as far as he wished, plant a third, turn and walk again until he had gone as far as he wanted, and then to plant the fourth stake. The land between the four stakes would be his, a personal gift from the Czar.
The man was overcome with joy and began walking. After he had gone some distance he stopped and prepared to drive a stake into the ground, when he said to himself: “Why should I stop here? I could have more,” and continued walking. After a while he stopped again and was about to plant a stake and turn, when again he said: “Why stop here?”
And as the story goes, he never stopped walking.
Adapted from The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life by Akiva Tatz, Published by Targum Press