Around the time I turned 40, I became acutely aware of the passage of time.
So, I’ve spent much of the past year trying to make the most of it. For instance, several weeks ago, I was planning to take advantage of a gorgeous weekend by camping out in the backyard with my kids.
Then, I got sick.
A summer cold that leveled me for most of a week. My throat hurt so badly I could barely swallow. I couldn’t climb a set of stairs without getting winded. The very idea of pounding tent stakes exhausted me. My body had reached its limit, and that limit did not include a night under the stars.
And it angered me.
It angered me because we are trained from a young age to believe we don’t have limits. We are told—in defiance of all reason and history—that we can be anything we want to be, and do anything we want to do. We are given all-you-can-eat buffets. We are given all-you-can-binge Netflix. We pay for unlimited data on cell phones, and we rent unlimited wardrobes on-line. We use oil as if it is limitless. We pretend houses can inflate in value without the bubble eventually bursting. We pretend the stock market can just keep on going up forever.
It’s no wonder we get a little angry when faced with a limit.
At first, limitations feel unjust, unfair.
We loathe our limitations.
While loathing them, though, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from them.
As I lay in my sickbed one morning, lamenting all the things I would not be able to do that day—for example, roasting marshmallows over a campfire—I remembered what one pastor used to say, “If you don’t take a Sabbath, the Sabbath will take you…in an ambulance.” He was, of course, talking about the limitations of our bodies. But as I lay there, contemplating my bodily limitations, I realized something else:
My soul has limitations, too.
My soul—my true self—was created in a particular way. It longs to be rooted deeply in one place, so too much travel leaves it longing for home. It prefers the sounds of the countryside to the sounds of the city, so too much time in the urban cacophony overwhelms it. I was given an introverted soul, so if I give my soul too many crowds, it slowly gets drained of energy and joy. My soul is ignited by writing; it is smothered by marketing. My soul delights in redeeming what is broken, but if I don’t give it rest from redeeming, it starts to feel a little broken, too.
As I lay there, too sick to push past my natural limitations, I thought of the river I’d kayaked earlier in the summer. It’s called the Rock River, and it runs mostly south, down from Wisconsin and into central Illinois.
Then it doesn’t.
Around a town called Grand Detour, the river suddenly stops running south, makes a U-turn and, for a stretch, runs northward, before making another U-turn and resuming its normal southerly course. This river flows through hundreds of miles of earth and limestone, and then at a place called Grand Detour, it runs into a rock it cannot overcome, and it allows itself to be turned by this limitation in a different direction. It is a beautiful stretch of river.
And it exists because even a river knows how to respect its limitations.
Our souls, too, flow like a river, and they too are meant to be responsive to the rocks they cannot push through. Some rocks—some situations, some hardships, some people, some disappointments, some obstacles—are supposed to send us in new and beautiful directions, at least for a while.
Parker Palmer writes, “There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does—maybe more.”
In some ways, all souls are the same: they are the dwelling place of the divine, a portal within us for everything that is infinite and limitless. But in other ways, each soul is distinctly and uniquely created, designed to be one way and not another, to do some things and not other things.
We are not here to do all things; we are here to do our things.
And discerning what those things are is as much about identifying our limits as it is about identifying our longings.
What if we stopped loathing our limitations?
What if, instead, we learned from them?
What if we even learned to love them?
Time would still pass, and it would still be precious, but we’d stop trying to make the most of it by trying to become more than what we actually are. We’d become wiser about when to keep pushing, and when to simply go with the flow.
And we’d finally get to rest into who we’ve been all along.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.