Problematizing Potential

ORDER (1) by Centa Schumacher

Here I am, first day of fully vaccinated status, as promised, not at home, but sitting at a brewery patio on a late Friday afternoon with the intention to write. It is always such a build up to the moment I put pencil to paper (pencil because I can’t commit to a pen). The brewery is an incentive, a coach’s staunch pep talk: Now that you’re here, you better write. And it usually works. I’m writing this sentence, aren’t I? But what comes next? The pressure of writing something worthy of an audience looms over. “Is this truly what I want to be saying?” — a repeated echo to each new sentence. I’ve written and erased this sentence at least five times, stared at the page, re-read the intro, feeling for a natural flow while holding in mind where I want to go, 2 full pages of brainstormed potential topics taunting me. 

This is why writing can be exhausting, the translation of thought to language, internal monologue to audience, spending 20 minutes on a thesaurus goose hunt looking for that word you just forgot. And yet, this journey is also its source of magic; the not knowing how things will unfold, the surprise twists when you let the process speak for itself. Most of the time, I sit down to write this newsletter the same day it is to be released — that is a lot of pressure — and yet it also lowers the stakes. What can I say now, in this moment? Because I only have this moment. And somehow, something always comes out; when I can stay present with the process, potential emerges. 

Creativity in Context’s mission is based in helping people to realize their creative potential, the tagline being “Expanding imagination of what’s possible.” The indication that there are many forces that suppress our potential, that we internalize as our own limitations, and that radical imagination — one that rejects the given confines — is the antidote. And yet, a focus on potential can actually be the problem, as I named in my last blog post. This dualistic quality is captured poignantly in Centa Schumacher’s oracle deck The Radiant Threshold, in which I often pull “The Orb” card: 

“The height of power and the pinnacle of neutrality, the Orb presents the opportunity to be shaken out of your mundane existence and step towards something powerful. The Orb is a center of untapped energy that can be used in any way you wish…The Orb can be the hungry ghost. It can be Aphrodite with her tantalizing laugh; the yawning chasm of desire, or the shadow of fulfillment. It is the empty, hungry feeling — and it is the power that helps you feed the hunger.”

(2) The Radiant Threshold by Centa Schumacher

Whenever I get this card, I can feel that last line burning inside me — the truly insatiable hunger of my ambition to do more, be seen, make an impact, or have significance, that both motivates me each day and leaves me exhausted and dissatisfied. The Buddhist inside me knows that this is the trap of becoming, basing my validation of self on external factors. And yet, I also know that we have to believe in our potential in order to manifest it, not just for our own selves, but for our collective selves. Mia Birdsong speaks to how she learned this lesson at a Critical Resistance conference on abolition from the prison-industrial-complex (3):

“The future I was invited to imagine…felt both exhilarating and terrifying. Not terrifying because of the absence of police and prisons, but because dreaming that big was uncomfortable…I was encouraged to realign my beliefs with my values, head, and heart, and imagine the world of my wildest, most hopeful dreams.”

She continues: “And part of what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not unrealistic or utopian, because it’s happening. There are people practicing the philosophy of abolition in their daily lives, making real what they imagine….”

(4) Mia Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community

I think this example offers us a roadmap for how to be with potential. Yes, we have to learn to dream big, but we actually act small. Even large victories, watershed moments of social changes, are the result of countless small acts. The tricky part is not letting the dream overwhelm the action. So often people ask “What can I do?” for social injustices, not because they don’t know any ways to help, but because they have become paralyzed by the scale of the issue. Or people question the validity of a dream like abolition on a larger scale instead of recognizing the many ways they could practice abolition in their communities right now. Both of these examples demonstrate how an obsession with the future actually keeps us from creating the future we want.

I am experiencing this first-hand:

About a month ago, I signed up for my very first singing class. I’ve always had this little fantasy of being a jazz singer, but I’ve never seriously pursued it. I mean, I do not have any musical training, I can’t read music, and I’ve never even really sang by myself in front of people…until now. And let me tell you, it was (still is) terrifying. I felt completely exposed, no idea of what I was doing, extremely embarrassed of my ineptitude. I literally cried for half of the class, singing through my tears. Because the thing is: I was judging myself against some idea of an untapped potential; an internalized belief that if I truly have potential to be a jazz singer, then a natural talent would just emerge, that if I struggle to do this, then how could I ever realize my fantasy, or even worse, if I expose how bad I am to the world, they’ll laugh at me for ever thinking I could do it. Of course none of this gives me credit for what I am actually doing: singing in front of people for the first time, getting feedback on my voice, learning to sing a song by myself, a feat I honestly did not know if I could actually do. Each of these steps are a huge victory — I now know I can learn to sing a song correctly! But every time I think of that fantasy, me on a stage, singing sultry jazz ballads with a band, I stutter — Am I good enough? When will I know I’m good enough? — looking for tangible proof it’s worth it to pursue this dream, that I’m worth it. 

So let me take my own advice and honor this small act as significant. The dream may be what keeps me going, pushing through despite performance anxiety, but I can’t judge my potential by the process. In fact, as writing has taught me, your potential will emerge when you trust in the process. So, I will sing my song and see where it leads.

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne


Everyday Creativity Tip

“Emergent strategies let us practice, in every possible way, the world we want to see.”

– adrienne maree brown (5)

I often ask my Creative Leadership students: How can you practice the world you want to see? How are you practicing? We have weekly check-ins on our co-created community agreements to reflect on the ways we have been and hope to practice. I tell them: “The more we name examples of creative leadership, the more we see all the ways we can practice it!” And so I encourage you to do the same: What are the small ways you can practice the world you want to see? Where do you see your values being practiced? Practices like:

  • Learning to ask for support from a friend
  • Asking a friend how they want to be listened to
  • Getting to know your neighbors
  • Learning about your local watershed
  • Growing your own garden

Each of these are actionable ways to practice a more interconnected, interdependent community. And each takes time, learning, patience, and belief. We create this world one act of imagination at a time.


Footnotes

1. Cover image is Order (1) by Centa Schumacher, which you can purchase here.
2. I pull a card from Centa’s incredibly beautiful and wise Radiant Threshold oracle deck every week. You can purchase your own deck here.
3. “The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems…PIC abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” from http://criticalresistance.org.
4. Mia Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, p.188-189.
5. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, p.23.


Originally published May 2, 2021 on the Creativity in Context Blog by Evelyn Thorne.


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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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