within limits

Every time I’ve told anyone I was taking a month off from life, there’s been a lot of shifty eyes, dirt-kicking, and trying to explain on my part. “I’ve got things to take care of down South.” “My lease is up, and I have people to see, and the family’s taking a vacation, and it’s just easiest not to come back until October.”

I didn’t want to simply admit that my heart has been crying for months to go home, just to be in the South and not in the city, for reasons I don’t entirely understand – and that I felt like I would break if I didn’t give in.

A few days ago I sat across from one of the people who has pushed me hardest as a scholar and as a person, reciting my excuses, and after an hour of catching up with one another he had few words for me except to say: “Don’t feel guilty for one minute of this time off. Get in the habit of seizing your rests and your Sabbaths, or you’ll never find a way to be grateful for them.” And at first, I didn’t take this as such profound advice; the idea of Sabbath-taking has been important to me for a long time. Even during grad school, I did everything in my power to take off one day a week. But the more his words stuck with me, swirling and resonating with the book I recently stumbled into about Sabbath, the more I had to admit that after several years with this theme playing through my life, I still haven’t gotten the point.

Much of human life and thought is an attempt to contend with, or to avoid contending with, our own finitude. And not just in terms of time, the search for immortality; we flail against the obvious fact that we cannot extend ourselves to infinity in space (by building empires), in work (by inventing technologies), in understanding (by building philosophies and worldview-systems to encompass reality).

Often I think we are so convinced of our ability to become infinite, and so habituated to trying for just a little more, that we don’t even know we are chasing such an absurd goal – but we are. We are terrified to admit that we have limits, especially in areas that are central to our identities. “I’m the boss here; I couldn’t possibly need advice.” “I’m the relationship-builder around here; of course I can be all things to all people.” Little gods.

American culture – let alone New England culture – doesn’t encourage people to say “I can’t”. Christian culture can do likewise, failing to distinguish between circumstances and projects into which we are called – and for which we are empowered – by God, from burdens we heap upon ourselves. And so even after I had made the choice to put aside career-building and money-making just to breathe and be with my family, I couldn’t let myself be empowered by that choice and instead, called myself weak. Soft. Less than.

And in some sense, the point is that I am those things, and there can’t be shame in it anymore. I am weak and soft and less than infinite, and I’m glad that we’re being honest about it. I think it’s time to retrieve an All-American phrase and apply it to life in general; I think it’s time to live within our means. Is it really getting ahead if you are constantly testing the limits of your emotional, mental, and relational reserves? Have you really made it if your life pushes you beyond your capacities for kindness, for joy, or for peace? Is your dream of being king of the mountain really fulfilled just by being last to collapse on top of the heap?

God commands us to rest if only to force us to sit and watch the world continue spinning without a bit of our help. But that agonizing realization can be the most freeing gift – the gift of pure delight in those things we already have, when we put aside striving for the things we don’t.

As for me, this September off is about living within the spiritual and emotional resources given to me, and about simple gratitude for the opportunity to replenish them in myriad ways while I’m back home and on vacation. It’s not self-indulgence as much as it is surviving as the person I want to be: a person of hope, of trust, of tradition, of faith, when I am beyond my ability to produce these things within myself. And giving myself over to the place and people who have been calling to me, I find they are pouring them into me more and better than I can comprehend.

Waiting beneath a vast swath of Arizona sky, I finally have no choice but to admit how very small I really am, how little of the world’s hardship and how small a fraction of its blessing I can actually hold; but finally without my frantic hubris, I’m able to hear a limitless love humming: here, I’ve got the rest.

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