This last week my wife gave birth to our second child, a baby boy. The birth of a child is an amazing event, but I am hard pressed to find an event that better brings to focus one’s limitations in life, quickly eliminating many choices and options, but therefore bringing better clarity and focus to one’s life as well.
We live in a culture that says you can do anything and everything you want to do…the choices and possibilities are endless. But I suggest that that is simply not true. There are limits to what we can do and achieve, no matter what are ambition or drive is. Many see this as a hindrance, but I see it as freedom.
Sometimes having limited options and choices is true freedom because it clarifies things. Helps a person focus on something more intently, rather than always playing around with what option or choice to make.
This is experienced by humans in all stages of life, but I especially see this struggle with young adults, primarily those who are making that transition from college into the “real world”/”working world.” There are often so many choices and options before them that they quickly become anxious and paralyzed, for out of fear of making the wrong choice.
Americans today choose among more options in more parts of life than has ever been possible before. To an extent, the opportunity to choose enhances our lives. It is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better; people who care about having infinite options will benefit from them, and those who do not can always just ignore the 273 versions of cereal they have never tried. Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.
In April I wrote the post Restlessness: Not Acknowledging Our Limits Can Keep Us From Focusing on Anything Permanent, and in February of 2007 I wrote, Vocation and Identity: Part 3-Limitations and Possibilities — in these posts I try to explore the varying aspects of choices and limits.
Parker Palmer puts it best in the book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
“Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of the world. Making pottery, for example, involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hands, telling her what it can and cannot do–and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his failure will go beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.
The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and some of those around you. “Faking it” in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer, pp. 15-16)
Part of being human is accepting our limits along with our potential, and living within that tension. With each new transition in life I have had to wrestle with the number of possibilities available to me and make some choices, choices that limit other things that could have been. With every YES that I declare, a NO is declared as well. Meaning when we say YES to something, we automatically say NO to something else. Many people cannot accept this, constantly believing they can do everything…often leading to burnout, depression, workaholic mentality, etc.
When my son was born last week I automatically realized that there were some things on my plate that I could no longer attend to or attempt. I was faced with an ever increasing limiting of time with a growing family. But instead of seeing that as a hindrance, I realized what a beautiful thing it is when something like a family can help one place limitations on their life, and by doing so bringer sharper clarity to what is truly important, and to what truly needs attending to. It is a gift.
Now that I have cleared my plate of many things, the things that do remain can be focused on with more intensity and purpose than ever before. These are my limits, and with these limits comes a freedom that no longer leaves me treading water in a sea of options, fearful that I might make the wrong choice, or limit myself to all the other possibilities.