An Appreciation of Limits

A dear friend and I were talking on the phone and she said, “I guess you have to be older to come to terms with your limitations—to really appreciate your gifts and your weaknesses for what they are.” She was talking about the joy she feels about the volunteer role she performs at her church and the quiet sense of accomplishment she feels when she carries it out, knowing that by doing it, she makes things easier for some and the worship experience meaningful for others. It’s not something everyone likes to do, but it comes easy to her. The accolades she might have sought once aren’t an issue.

After we hung up, I thought of an essay I wrote a few years ago about why I thought kids in school don’t usually list history as their favorite subject. I wrote that I thought it was because we started teaching dates and events and giving multiple choice tests in social studies, when the essence of history is in the stories—who the people were, what the conditions were, what hardships they faced, what courage or cowardice they showed, what they achieved. I still think that’s true in some part, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to appreciate history you have to have lived long enough to have one and remember it.

In youth, we face outward. We are invincible, energetic, physically virile. We dare not think of ourselves as limited in any way. We push ourselves toward more and more achievement, pushing the envelope, holding our own within our sphere with respect to money and acquisitions. We don’t generally stop and think about where we are or where we’re going or what it means because, in the world of the young, he who hesitates is lost.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In the first part of our lives, the primary goal should be one of finding out just how far we can go, pushing to see where our limits are, identifying and celebrating our unique talents until we reach the peaks, the primes, the pinnacles of our lives.

The proverbial “mid-life crisis” arrives right on time—just when we start to notice that we can’t run quite as fast as we used to or the display of reading glasses suddenly attracts our attention or fitting into the same size clothes we wore at 25 is about all the limit-pushing we have energy for. Activity gives a nod to contemplation and we enter a period that theorist Erik Erikson called “integrity vs. despair,” that time of life when we evaluate our lives in retrospect and decide how we feel about it all.

If we find ourselves in “despair,” we mourn the things we meant to do and didn’t, and bitterness creeps in. But if we find ourselves in a state of “integrity,” once the mourning is done, we realize that the richness of our lives is not as much about the experiences we had, the battles and awards we won, or the mark we made.

Instead, it is in savoring those things that for now, only we and God know we did. And smiling, because we know that no matter how large or small, significant or insignificant in the eyes of the world, in the end, it was enough.

And by virtue of being exactly who we are, so were we.

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