We all start off the year with the same text books, the same teacher, the same lessons. It seems like we should all be able to achieve the same results, like we should be learning the same thing. But eventually each one of us stumbles over obstacles we may not even be able to identify. A young woman works hard at reading but just can’t seem to master it; it turns out she has dyslexia and reading is never going to be as easy for her as it is for the classmate that spends her playground time under a tree reading for fun. Perhaps that classmate spends her recess reading because the social relationships that come so easy for her classmate mystify her. I was one of those kids who was always picked last in gym class. I was the youngest and shortest in my class, and tended to cower and shield my face when a ball was thrown right at me. It turned out I have poor eye hand coordination.
We all have limits. Some of us have limits that are visible to others, like if you wear glasses, or carry a cane. Some limits are invisible to anyone but ourselves. As we get older our physical limits become more and more apparent. As children we may have thought we ourselves would always have complete freedom of mind and body, part of becoming and adult is realizing that everybody has physical limits, and that physical limits change over time. This is part of being human -- part of being mortal. This is one of the primary existential questions and one of the most important theological questions. This is the issue that religion must address or be irrelevant.
For those of us who are out of school and maybe haven't been in school for a very long time, we might still have that back to school experience at the beginning of the new year, or new project; we have such visions and plans for our future.
Then our car breaks down or the furnace breaks or we become very ill or maybe we lose somebody close to us that we lean on and count on. ( I have this metaphoric image in my mind of all of us running a race together, and suddenly one of us hits an invisible wall they cannot cross, a wall that doesn’t appear to be stopping any of our fellow racers.) In truth there will never be enough time in our lives to do all we can imagine even if we live to be very very old. Our UU faith teaches us that these realities-- these existential limits -- are not a punishment for something down wrong. Some limits will slow us down or stop us all together no matter how hard we try. This is what it means to be human, this is what it means to be mortal.
Running into any of our limits is frustrating. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to grieve. Sometimes that anger, that frustration gives us the energy we need to do a hard thing- to learn to read despite being dyslexic, to make it through the rounds of chemo therapy , to care for our children alone after our partner is gone. But denying the reality of our limits, as natural a response as that is, doesn’t honor the wholeness of who we are. I was practicing yoga with an injury a few years back, and feeling like my injury was keeping me from my yoga practice. The yoga teacher reframed it for us: Yoga is not something we do when we are healthy, not something we try to do in spite of injuries, but yoga is a practice we bring our whole self to-- injuries, weaknesses and all. Our spiritual lives are like that too, as is our life together as a beloved community. The spiritual journey is not about overcoming our limits, but becoming fully who we are- the parts of ourselves we enjoy and are proud of, as well as the limits with which we struggle.
Most of the images of the divine we are familiar with are about perfection, and it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that if the divine is perfect, and we humans are imperfect, then our imperfections are less than holy. As Universalists, however, we believe that there are no humans who are separated from divine love, no matter how imperfect we are. A Universalist God embraces everyone and everything - including everything that we are and everything we are not.
I want to make a distinction here between being conscious of your limits and integrating them into your sense of self and allowing your limits to define you. Many years ago I was an adult literacy tutor to a fellow who, despite having already been in tutoring for 6 months, could not master the sounds of the alphabet. Imagine the strength of will on this guy to stick with it for 6 months without getting any closer to reading! I finally turned to my supervisor for help, knowing I’d hit my own limit as a tutor, and a trained volunteer tested his learning capacities. It turns out that he was having trouble with oral closure (which means c at was never going to become “cat”) but had a college level verbal recognition (which means he could memorize and learn to recognize the whole word “cat” when he saw it). So we abandoned phonics all together, and switched over to sight words. he read his first story that very day. When we own the reality of both our limits and our gifts, we can use our strengths to support our weaknesses rather wishing we were something other than who we are. Both your limits and your strengths are part of the unique and irreplaceable person you are.
Never forget, though, that part of being human is changing and growing. Our limits change as we change. Think about all the limits you experienced as a child that don’t trouble you at all as an adult. Did anyone else find learning to tie your show kind of maddening? Or long division? I thought I was NEVER going to get Long division. Some limits change suddenly or rapidly, others grow so slowly you can barely notice them growing. When Eric and I were newly married, we had this beloved dog Waldo who became paraplegic at the age of 6. His surgeon explained how slow nerve regrowth was, and said though he would never walk again, we should be on the lookout for slow changes. Well after his surgery Waldo’s fur grew back, and his wound healed, and his scar faded bit by bit. He never did walk again, but his pain and depression faded. He learned to use wheelchair and could run across a field faster than we could chase him. And darned if after 3 or 4 years, he wasn’t able to get a bit of a tail wag going. At first we didn’t believe it- surely we were imagining things, but that tail wag grew in strength and frequency until it was undeniable. We are always changing and growing, and should never assume our limits are where we left them. Think about the societal change that's possible. Think about the progress that’s been made on marriage equality, and let that give you courage and hope to keep testing, keep working to grow as individuals and as a society.
And when you reach the limit of what you can do, remember you are not alone. When you have tried and tried, and don’t seem to be getting anywhere. When the limits feel so much stronger than you feel, and you are ready to give up, remember that we are part of an interdependent web that is much larger than ourselves. For theists, and agnostics, this is a moment to call out in our despair, in our frustration to the divine. We acknowledge our limits, our finitude, our mortality. We acknowledge that we need help. We never know how that help may come, but a true cry of the soul is honored in theistic religions the world over.
The Sufi poet Rumi writes:
“Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she's there.
God created the child, that is , your wanting,
so that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don't be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of loving flow into you.”[i]
To whom, you might well ask, does the Atheist cry out? Without a faith in God, where do we put our faith when we are at our limit? This is at the core of what humanism is all about- we have faith in one another, in our community. This is why we bring a casserole to one who is sick, or bounce a colicky infant on our knee. We know that we have no choice sometimes but to rely on this web of life of which we are a part, and it is up to us to keep that web strong. Whether or not you believe in god, you are not alone.
Independence is valued highly in our society, but truly none of us will ever be independent. Even Thoreau who made his own food, and built his own cabin and lived off the grid for months still relied on the generosity of his friend Emerson for the land he lived on. He relied on the plants and the trees and the animals to feed and shelter him. It is hard to say to your community “I can’t do this- I need help” but in fact that is the reality. In every moment of any day, we are relying on one another.
When you are frustrated about your limits- that you had to stop running because of your knees, that right now the needs of your body are keeping you from doing something you would really like to do, that your empty bank account is keeping you from doing something you really need to do. Remember you are not alone. When you are watching the news, and hear about the imperfections of our world- that the state of Pennsylvania still does not protect the rights of GLBT persons from discrimination by employers or landlords, when you hear words of hate and bigotry against immigrants or Muslims. Maybe you think to yourself, as I do, what can my one letter to my state representative do? How can I face this overwhelming societal limit? remember you are not alone. Remember that no one person could have turned the tide on Marriage Equality. When you visit your representative you are not alone. When you send a letter to your senator you are not alone. When you screw up the courage to speak up to a relative across the holiday table who says the racist thing- “I have to disagree with you on that” you are not alone. When we wonder “how can our little church survive in this huge ever-changing world” know that we are not alone. We exist in a web of neighbors and friends, and people we have never met, of plants and animals and forces of nature we don’t even fully understand. Like a single tile in a mosaic, or strand in a weaving, we don’t need to be everything, because we are woven into a much larger whole.
And just like us, every neighbor and friend and tree and bird and river has real limits they run up against every day. Be compassionate to yourself and to those around you when we reach our growing edge. And when we meet our limits, we need not feel that we are less than whole, because we are part of a larger wholeness that holds us all.
[i] Source: Jalal al-Din Rumi, Maulana. The Essential Rumi / Translated by Coleman Barks, New Expanded Edition. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. 1995. Excerpts from “Cry Out in Your Weakness,” pages 156-167.