January 18, 2020

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Photo from Pixabay

Potential: A latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed.

“You know Mark, you’re a smart boy and have great potential. If you keep fooling around, you’ll never get anywhere. Now write on the blackboard ‘I have great potential’ 100 times.” — Mrs. G., my fifth-grade teacher

In 2021, it will be 50 years since I graduated from high school. In the past 10 years, I’ve shrunk an inch. My toenails are starting to grow in different directions. And my ear and nose hairs grow faster than Oprah’s bank account. Everywhere I go, I’m now called “sir.” Getting older is like being a captain in the Army. “No, sir. Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” The first stranger who calls me “Pops” I am going to deck. 

The days of people telling me I have great potential are long over. According to focus groups, when you hit a certain age, you’ve potentially outlived your potential. When I’m out with any of my three sons, I see how girls smile at them. I’m practically invisible to the opposite sex. 

Most people younger than 35, except friends and family, want nothing to do with me. I’m keenly aware of people my age starting to trip or slip in the shower. Hips and knees are being replaced as fast as teeth on a pro hockey team. When I drive at night, the lights from oncoming cars seem so bright, I go into my stand-up comedy act. 

My wife recently gave me the “no more climbing ladders speech.” If I need to change a ceiling light bulb, I have to go to Home Depot and pick up a day worker. 

My doctors are starting to find things wrong with me but I’m fighting as best as I can. I exercise more now than I did when I was 20. I also eat better than I used to. Unless I suddenly drop dead, I believe I have a relatively good shot at a decent old age. 

My wife recently gave me the “no more climbing ladders speech.” If I need to change a ceiling light bulb, I have to go to Home Depot and pick up a day worker. 

But when I look back at my life, I admit I’m guilty of not appreciating all the good health and wonderful things that I was given as a young person. I was so blessed. Thank you, God. I had it all and didn’t know it. I was your textbook “lack of gratitude, do what I want when I want” young person. And a few times, I almost paid the ultimate price for my attitude. I was wasting my potential and risking my life.

While I was growing up, older folks said, “Young people just don’t appreciate what they have.” I’m not sure young people can appreciate what they have. When you get older, you can appreciate things you still have if you took care of those things in your youth — like teeth. If you took care of your teeth, when you get older, you can say, “Boy, I’m grateful I took care of my teeth back then.” Maybe potential is given in stages. Maybe as a young man I didn’t have the potential to be grateful. Maybe I wasn’t ready for that. 

Even now, I could be much more grateful. But I disagree that I don’t have potential. For most people, potential is in the mind; it has little to do with age. Don’t dwell on what you used to be able to do. Do all you can today. 

As you get older, you may lose some of your drive, but you still have potential. Every day that I sit down and write, I get better at writing. And every day I exercise, I get stronger.

I remember speaking with a great rabbi who was way up there in years. He had spent many hours a day learning for most of his life. He said, “What bothers me most is that with all the learning I’ve done, I feel like I’ve only dipped the tip of my pinky into the well. I’ll just have to be satisfied I’ve done the best I could do.”

No one fulfills all of his or her potential. There will always be the unfinished. Do the best you can and know that’s all any of us can do. Good luck.

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.