Because life is a series of edits

Learning About Limits

In Humanity on June 23, 2006 at 4:56 pm

In a lecture titled, “A Man Worth Knowing” at Hillsdale College (and reprinted in its excellent – and free – Imprimis newsletter), historian David McCullough tells this story about one of America’s most important founding fathers:

“On July 21, 1756, at the age of 20, John Adams wrote this memorable entry:

‘I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors…I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected within myself and think upon what I read and what I see. I will strive with all my soul to be something more than persons who have had less advantages than myself.’

But the next morning he slept until seven, and in a one-line entry the following week he wrote:

‘A very rainy day. Dreamed away the time.’

There was so much that he wanted to know and do, and he would have moments when he thought life was passing him by: ‘I have no books, no time, no friends. I must therefore be contented to live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow.'”

Like John Adams (if I can make that comparison without laughing), I don’t deal well with the reality that I am a finite person. I don’t like that I need to sleep, and until college – when I learned in my sophomore psychology class of a sleep-deprivation experiment that actually killed the mice involved – I somehow had convinced myself that sleep was just a case of mind over matter. If you didn’t want to sleep, you didn’t have to (never mind that I sometimes did).

But I’m starting to feel it – my limits, that is – and they go far beyond just sleep. I’m beginning to see limits in my ability to learn; in my exhibition of patience with others; in my opportunities; in my interests; in my passions; in my energy; in my desire to do all that is right; in my time. Regardless of what I think I want to do, I’m (finally) realizing that I have limits. And this is difficult to admit – to others and especially to myself.

Author Douglas Coupland muses that when we turn thirty, our “hard drives” become full and there’s no more space to put in new information; whatever we learn just writes over what was once there. It’s an interesting thought, I suppose, one I’ve wondered about in the midst of my efforts to learn Greek and Hebrew. Do I just not like languages or is there some actual disability I have that others don’t that makes it that much harder for me? Unfortunately, my quiz grade in Hebrew last night might provide my answer.

Limits in life, however, are more than just ones of capacity; there are also ones of prohibition. Sometimes even if I want to do something, I can’t for various reasons – I want to watch 24, but we don’t have cable and our antenna here in our basement apartment won’t pull in Fox no matter how I move it; I would love to sit down with the President and have a few words concerning some of his policies, but the Secret Service would never let me get close enough to see him, let alone talk with him.

This kind of limitation also includes my trying to get into the Cardinals baseball game on Father’s Day with a ticket that mistakenly was for the night before. I didn’t get in, as apparently there were rules that applied to such a situation (and awkwardly so, I assure you).

I wonder sometimes what I would be like if I had no limits of capacity – if I could learn as much as I wanted; if I could be everywhere whenever I wanted to be; if I could get done all I dreamt of getting done. I wonder also what I would be like if I had no limits of prohibition – if I could meet whoever I wanted; if I could attend whatever I wanted; if I could do whatever I wanted.

Who would I be as a limitless person? Who would you be? And isn’t it ironic that the one limit originally placed on us in the Garden (Genesis 2:16-17) was multiplied exponentially as a result of Adam and Eve’s pursuit of no limits?

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