Would you consider yourself limitless? Or how would you define yourself?
The essay “Faustian Economics” by Wendell Berry starts out with a observation about the apparent belief that the American way of life is somehow indestructible. If you are like me, just the word “economics” would make you hesitant about reading this essay–economy is practically a bad word in today’s economy. However this essay is more about the limits within our social system and economy of life, so I recommend it if you are looking for something highly thought-provoking. Berry goes on to explore a number of other dilemmas that the American mindset of limitlessness has presented, but his initial comments on being limitless and defining ourselves stood out to me.
“The problem with [Americans] is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or ‘higher animals.’ But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals–which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define himself: ‘I am that I am.'”
Definition is something that has long perplexed me, not only as an English and Communications major, but as a human being trying to determine my identity. That is why I made it the framework of what this blog could be about. In an age of endless individualization we are all striving to be unique and to carve out an identity that defines us as such. We try to be limitless in these identities and redefine any definitions the world attempts to brand us with. However, my experience has taught me that greater comfort and joy is found in discovering that someone has the same fears and hopes as I do, rather than feeling like I am isolated in my uniqueness.
Somewhere in elementary school I began to hate the color pink. This was not a light emotion, it was a strong distaste for anything of that hue that has lasted until today. Until recently, I never considered that my dislike for that color was a small rebellion in an attempt to be unique among the overwhelming sea of little girls covered in tones of pink. I believed that not liking that color opened me up to a limitless world where I could be free from gender prejudices, but of course we all know this isn’t true.
Limitations refuse to be easily managed or understood. The Israelites barely lasted a day when Moses came them the limit to not worship an idol while he went up on the mountain to talk to God. But then a couple hundred years later, their ancestors the Pharisees had taken those limits too far. For parents, it is a tricky line between allowing children to make mistakes and setting boundaries to keep them safe. More often then not, we all try to push those boundaries anyways. Language itself is a prime example of the human dilemma of definition–because words and the way we use them are in a constant flux of meaning that doesn’t follow the same rules as a hundred years ago, and there will be different rules a hundred years from now.
The solution to this dilemma, according to Berry, is to accept our limitations so that we can actually make the most of what we can be within those limits. Berry notes that we “confuse limits with confinement,” the same way that I thought the color pink was a limit confining me to girlish prejudices. But if we give up on the search for a limitless unique identity, we might accept the identity God has limited us to in our human existence. My faith means that I do believe in a future beyond this human existence that goes beyond our limits, but that doesn’t come till later when Christ returns again.
For now, I must accept that God has limited me in a way that allows me to actually thrive more. My human definitions of what life should be are actually more limited than what God has in mind. Limits are not hard and fast rules that put up impassable walls, they are the framework God gives us to find our way back to the center of our being. It is at the center of ourselves that we become truly free, thriving in the essence of what we were created to be.
This all sounds nice in theory, but it is becoming increasingly real for me as I approach graduation. Many people have told me that I should be excited, because I have limitless options and opportunities awaiting me. Honestly, I hope that’s not true. On the flip side, I have been waiting for God to plop the plan in my lap and give me the limits of what comes next. But in the rush to discover limits or exceed them, too often we lose sight of the reality of where we are right now. I have begun to realize that if I stress out now about defining my future, I will not be making the most of my current limitations. For now I am limited to the city of Chicago, a campus of old friends and new acquaintances, and four months of classes and homework. Some would see these things as constraints. I see them as frames just waiting to be filled. Within those limits there are endless possibilities, and if I’m too busy trying to define the future I will miss out on how defining the present can be.
I took this picture on a recent trip to Sequoia National Park. From this viewpoint the mountains seemed to stretch on endlessly, but the sunset reminds us that, although there is always a limited horizon each day, it is still a beautiful fulfillment of the best it could be.
What limits do you see in your life right now?
How can you turn those into goals to fulfill rather than limits of confinement?
What role does definition play in your life?
Note: In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve added another page to those at the top that cover the basics of what this blog is about (“Redefine”), “Who” I am, other sites “You” might be interested in, and how to “Follow” my other writing (which will be expanded more in the future). Now there is also the “2014” section, which details my goal for this year to read at least 2 books per month. The essay I just discussed comes from the book I’m currently reading entitled Best American Essays: 2009, edited by one of my favorite poets Mary Oliver. Stay tuned for more updates on this book, as well as others, and the jumble of my thoughts that come with them.