Limitation is a son of transience. When things are always changing, when waves of time are always lapping at the thin shore of the present, we see how little we’re able to control. We hate this instinctively. And then we draw the false conclusion that limitation is an evil, that we have to wage against it until our minds crack or our bodies crumble.
But limitation is the very thing that opens us to relationship. A limitless being needs no relationships. God didn’t need a relationship with us; he wanted one. I’ll never understand why, and I don’t need to. The important thing is that, for us, limitation is built into our being for divine reasons. Limitation is a relay race. It shows us how far we can go before we need to hand the baton off to someone else, or receive it from another runner.
The dark side of this is death. As my father lay dying in our living room, a feeding tube winding its way from his black-haired stomach, his limitation was painfully foregrounded. It screamed at us, every time we had to pour a cup of Nutri-fast into the gastronomy tube. We had to put the food right into his stomach. His mouth was a dry cave leading to a dark and vacant road. We cheated him. His limitation at this stage was sickening.
But that sickening limitation opened a place for us to care for him in his final days, as did his limitation for managing pain, when morphine entered his clenched teeth, through a mouth I had to pry open with all my teenage might.
Other limitations are less severe, but they do the same thing: create spaces for relationships. Relationships can only enter when need or desire provides the space, but need and desire are both peninsulas. They call out for ships. They need ports filled and decks unloaded. Every need and desire is a shipyard. We’re always searching for sails. That’s limitation.
Every need and desire is a shipyard. We’re always searching for sails.
The afternoon we learned that my father’s brain cancer was beyond treatment, my mother and I drove through the car-cluttered parking lot for an eternity. “I just don’t know how to live my life without him in it,” she said with tears. I held it together until, by providence, we came to a big red sign that said, “Stop.” Stop, Taylor. Just. Stop.
So I did. I cried at the stop sign. I cried because he had to stop. I cried because of his limitation, and my limitation, and my mom’s limitation. We were at the great impasse, the wall between life and death that draws out weeping from us on one side and silence from those on the other.
Limitation is rarely painless. But that’s because we have an ingrained desire to be self-sufficient. And that desire is never going to be met. Never. That might sound horrible, but think of it this way: Limitation will show you what you can really give.
The poet Christian Wiman, struggling with an uncurable terminal illness, wrote,
In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. There is something I am meant to see, something for which my own situation and suffering are the lens, but the cost of such seeing . . . may very well be any final clarity or perspective on my own life, my own faith. That would not be a bad fate, to burn up like the booster engine that falls away from the throttling rocket, lighting a little dark as I go (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss).
My father was a booster engine. For me. For my brothers. For my mother. For hundreds of others with the words and memories he left behind as he blasted into the star-singing dark. We’re all destined to be booster engines.
* * *
Limitation is not an evil. It’s only an evil in a world full of people striving for autonomy. To be limited is to be made for relationship, to be made as a puzzle piece with edges and curves searching for correspondence, for extension. Loss just makes this obvious.
To be limited is to be made for relationship, to be made as a puzzle piece with edges and curves searching for correspondence, for extension.
But there is a want—no, a need so deep and so broad that nothing here can satisfy it. It’s the edge of our puzzle piece that can’t seem to find a perfect match. We get close sometimes, try to force a fit, but in the end we’ll admit we never really had it. And that’s because, despite all our comforts and loves in life, we know we’re foreigners on planet earth, don’t we? Search yourself. There is something deep in the caverns of every soul, a whistling other worldly melody. Maybe death is what opens our ears to it.
On a sunny, cloudless May afternoon, I walked down the tiled hallway to my father’s hospital room. We had made the decision to bring him home for hospice care. And we told him he was coming home. We kept using that word, “home,” as if we actually knew what it meant.
As I walked through the doorway, the man I knew as strength itself was covered in thin sheets and sunlight, staring out the five-foot window at the sky. Tubes and wires ran their way from his body to gray machines that spoke a simple language of lights and numbers. A man of sheets and wires—this is what it had come to.
“You know we’re bringing you home, right?” I said. “You know why we’re bringing you home?”
He turned and raised his thin, left arm into the air, pointing into the blue expanse like some kind of tired captain. And he managed to get out just one word: “home.”
Death teaches us that we’re foreigners here, exiles. All of our limitations culminate in the most terrifying limitation: our limited breath. Home cannot be found here. It is in another country, continents away, beyond the ocean of familiarity. As the wise mole said in Charlie Mackesy’s brilliant little book: “I think everyone is just trying to get home" (The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse).
The limit of life makes foreigners of us all.
We enjoy our temporary stand-ins for home. As I write these words, I sit at the kitchen table that’s held a thousand meals before me. My back knows this chair. My elbows know the proud-grained oak surface. My fingers caress the grain and the barren nail holes of the old barn wood I’ve sanded down. This is my home. But I know I can’t stay here forever. And that limitation makes me a foreigner, an exile.
But as Eugene Peterson wrote, “Exile is the worst that reveals the best” (Run with the Horses, p. 152). If I’m not fully home here, then I will be fully home elsewhere. My father knew that as he pointed into the blue sky on that May afternoon.
The limit of life makes foreigners of us all.
Read more in the author's memoir I Am a Human
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