Potential versus Kinetic Energy

I remember my physics teacher in high school, Mr. Held, always saying, “May your KE= your PE.” This was his version of “May the Force be with you.” At the time, I thought it was just a nerdy thing to say. However, there is wisdom in those words.

Energy is everywhere and comes in many forms. It is the ability to do work when a force applied to an object causes change. The two most common forms are potential energy and kinetic energy. They’re very different in terms of how they interact with the physical world. Potential energy is the energy of what can be. Kinetic energy is the energy of what is. Potential energy is found in an object’s position, not its motion. Kinetic energy is created when potential energy is released, it is the energy of motion.

There’s a constant push and pull between potential energy and kinetic energy in everyday life. Potential energy always leads to kinetic energy when it is released, and kinetic energy is needed to allow an object to store energy as potential.

The classic example is the large boulder on the edge of a cliff, which has potential energy, or the potential to produce work. However, it’s not until it gets rolling down the cliff face that its potential energy is released, and it begins to accomplish work. When objects are displaced from positions of equilibrium, they convert energy that was stored before being knocked out of equilibrium. This altered state can be by elastic rebound, gravity, or chemical reactions. Consider the archer’s bow, which stores the energy created from pulling back the bowstring. The stored potential energy is responsible for the kinetic energy that occurs upon release.

Rivers, on their own, are strictly kinetic energy at work. The water is constantly moving, and all that motion is constantly creating kinetic energy. However, a river could have potential energy if it is dammed, with the artificial reservoir storing energy to be used when needed through a hydroelectric dam.

Potential energy doesn’t necessarily lead to kinetic energy. We can build up potential energy around a subject forever and never use it. Building up potential energy is very easy relative to the equivalent output of kinetic energy. Reading about physics is far easier than doing physics. Learning about running technique is easier than practicing running technique. Whatever the kinetic equivalent is, it’s more difficult to achieve.

In the business world I have often been exposed to presentations around vision and purpose. These are always worthwhile for alignment and clarity, but they are all about potential. Meetings to talk about issues are potential energy, more meetings to talk further about these same issues stores up even more potential energy. Execution makes it kinetic. Unused potential energy can lead to stagnation, frustration, or an illusion of progress. Sooner or later potential needs to become a past tense and we need to act.

Passion can be the trigger that ignites kinetic energy. The key is effort, do something. There is a saying that is attributed to Anonymous, although it sounds a lot like what the infamous quipster, Yogi Berra might have said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

We live in the greatest country in the world. A country whose initial concept from our Founding Fathers was loaded with tremendous potential power. That potential power has fueled over 200 years of kinetic progress. Meanwhile, we continue to discover where we have even greater potential we must strive to reach. If this country is not great in some eyes, then where is that potential? If it is not great for my neighbor, whom I love, then why not? What can I do to affect change and create kinetic energy?

Love is a great stimulus for change. We, as believers in Christ, have the potential to love others and make a difference in their lives. However, it’s not our love at rest that accomplishes this work, but rather when our love moves us to action.

Jesus recognized the potential that Simon Peter had, even though the fisherman did not. Peter eventually found the power and grace that he needed to act and move beyond potential. Faith, by itself, is potential energy. Potential faith achieves nothing, until it’s converted into kinetic faith, faith that is activated through the Holy Spirit. Consider that Jesus’ miracles were converting potential faith into kinetic faith. Believing in that faith. “Your faith has healed you” is reported in the three synoptic Gospels around the events of the Woman with a Hemorrhage, the blind man, the woman with her daughter, as well as the Centurion and his servant.

The “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) speaks of Potential and Kinetic energies. This parable, probably my favorite, establishes God’s measure for our lives. God knows the potential for who we are and who we can become. When we neglect our God-given capacity, we do not maximize our God-given potential. To whom much has been given, much is expected and to whom more has been given, more is expected. (Luke 12:48 – my “life verse”)

St. Paul toiled and struggled with all the energy that “Christ powerfully inspires within me” (Colossians 1:29). With that inspiration, he became a formidable force in the expansion of God’s Kingdom on earth. He noted in Romans 10:17-21, the Gospel had been sufficiently proclaimed to Israel, and Israel understood God’s plan for the messianic age, to see the Gospel brought to the uttermost parts of the earth. However, Israel did not accept the prophetic message.

In God’s plan, let us not bury our talents. Let our KE= our PE. Let our passion and love be the stimulus to make ‘what can be’ into ‘what is.’


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