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How Your Inability to Play the Fiddle can Teach You what You're Capable Of (Ability Vs. Capacity)

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

I recently used the illustration of a banjo to discuss this subject. A fiddle works just as well. I typically try to use imagery that is consistent with my cultural background.

As an aside, do you know what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin? You don’t get too bent out of shape if you spill beer on your fiddle.

Har, har… an old musician’s joke. Now let’s get into this:

Chew over the following factual statement for a minute or two:

I have the capacity to play the fiddle. But I do not have the ability to play the fiddle, because I have never learned.

See, your capacity for a thing, or capability, is not affected by what you know, or do not know. In fact, you have no say at all in what you are, or are not, capable of. Your capacity is an inherent possibility that exists within you, at all times, whether you ever take advantage of it or not. You are made with the inherent possibility of that function built into you.

Imagine I want my dog, Bradbury, to sit down, dream up, and then type out the next great-American novel. Is there anything I can possibly do for him, or that he can do for himself, that will ever allow him to carry this out?


It doesn’t matter if Jane Goodall and Cesar Millán both come to my house and tag team for the next hundred years. We’re talking about something that poor ‘ol Braddy lacks the capacity for. It is so foreign to what he is capable of that it will always be an impossibility for him. I might as well expect him to fly like a bird.

I recently bought my first new television set in forever. (I went entirely without a TV for several years.) My new TV measures seventy inches. It is 4K, Ultra HD, sweeter than apple pie.

Now, imagine I unplug my television from the wall. Is it reasonable for me to get angry if I’m unable to get the screen to function under these conditions? Why not?

My television lacks the capacity to function without being plugged into a power source. It is incapable of functioning unless it is plugged in. Therefore the expectations I just described are entirely unreasonable, and will always be unreasonable.

Ability is different. Your ability can indeed be affected by what you do or do not know. It can be affected by tons of other factors; such as conditioning, experience, or current circumstances. For example, my favorite ex-baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia, had the capacity to be a superstar baseball player. The problem is, he didn't have much ability to play baseball for his last couple of seasons with the team, because of knee problems.

The following statement is true for me, for you, and for anybody who might read this article.

Listen closely:

I have the capacity to be a pilot, a scientist, a Supreme Court justice, an actor, a skilled musician, a mathematician, a police officer, an outstanding parent, and a person completely free from any emotional disorders.

The Boston Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia

Whether or not I ever gain the ability to do any of these things is mostly up to whether I ever decide to do what is required to achieve them.

There’s nothing inherently preventing me from accomplishing it. I possess the potential. Other factors affecting my ability are my natural interests, my personality, luck, connections, social status, personal circumstances, and on and on.

So why is all of this important? For three primary reasons:

1. It can help you determine and set reasonable, high expectations of yourself. It justifies any hope and enthusiasm you feel for any attempts you might make to recover from any emotional disorder.

2. It will make all the difference later, when you are grappling with understanding what you can reasonably have expected from your parents, or not have reasonably expected of them, in terms of the quality of their parenting when you were a child.

3. It will set the bar for the people who care about you, regarding what they reasonably can, and should, expect from you, despite the fact that you have a ‘disorder’.

If you believe, for example, that you are incapable (lack the capacity) to rid yourself of Borderline Personality Disorder, this will naturally affect the very effort you ultimately devote towards that end, as well as your level of enthusiasm toward such an objective.

However, if like my example with the fiddle (or banjo), you realize recovery is something you have always been inherently capable of, yet merely lacked ability to do (because of lack of knowledge, lack of understanding, or lack of willingness) you will gain a strong sense of purpose to put forth genuine effort and not be deterred.

Later, when examining, and coming to understand, how your parents are responsible for your Borderline Personality Disorder, this distinction between ability and capacity will help you see that your parents had no acceptable excuse whatsoever for the damage they caused you in childhood. While they may have lacked ability, because of ignorance in certain matters, they always had the capacity to do better; to recognize and fix what they were doing wrong. They only ever had to care more, and put in more effort.

This will help you to more accurately measure the true gravity and nature of what it is they did, or failed to do. There are many reasons this clarity is imperative for your recovery, but this is a conversation for another time.

Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers

Finally, for those who care about you, this distinction will help them more clearly see what is reasonable for them to expect from you, as well as what is not reasonable. They can then set reasonable boundaries and expectations, and steadfastly hold you to harsh consequences for violating such boundaries, or failing to live up to reasonable expectations.

For example, it is reasonable for them to expect you to get your act together, and stop having Borderline Personality Disorder. And just to prove it, consider the following:

We have already established that it is not reasonable to get angry at my dog if he fails to write the next Great-American Novel, because this is something he is incapable of doing to begin with. It is not reasonable to expect something of him that he does not have the capacity to do. Even if he wanted to do it, he could not.

However, is it unreasonable for me to expect my dog to learn to not pee in the house? No, this is not even a little bit unreasonable of me.

Even though my dog may lack the ability for the first month of his life as a puppy, I know he has the capacity to learn, and I can rightfully, justifiably, expect from him, in time, to no longer pee in my house. This is not an unreasonable expectation for me to have.

Well, guess what? You’re a dog, and you’ve been peeing on the rug for way too long. You have the capacity to learn not to do that anymore, and people have a right to expect it of you. You have a right, and good reason, to expect it of yourself.

There’s no reason to beat yourself up over what, until now, you have been unable to do. But there is reason to have high, solid, unwavering expectations for yourself moving forward.

Ability. Capacity. Two distinct things, and it is imperative to have a clear understanding of both when it comes to your recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder.

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