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Limitations

Mary Oliver writes a rather whimsical poem called “Mozart, For Example.” In it, she ponders the thought, “All the quick notes Mozart didn’t have time to use…”

She alludes to the fact that even the unsurpassed Mozart, who wrote over forty symphonies and numerous operas, was not blessed with infinite time or even infinite talent, whose life on earth, in fact, was neither infinite nor long. Not even Mozart, master of notes, could use them all. He died at age 35.

Life has built-in limitations.

We are told that none of us uses even a fraction of the capacity we are given, though Mozart seemed to use a lot of his. A friend has a way of saying, somewhat wistfully, “While Mozart was composing symphonies, I was playing with mud pies.” Alas, that’s probably what I was doing.

I was a painfully shy child, hiding behind my mother in group situations, never comfortable with the social scene at school in twelve years. I was an introvert before I knew the word and was amply content with my two or three good friends. When my own children started going to school, I would get stomach aches every September as memories of my painful awkwardness came flooding back. I projected my feelings onto my children—needlessly, as it turns out.

When I did finally grow up, I joined an organization full of extroverted, leader-types. I was neither. I wondered how I would survive. I envied the ease at which many of my colleagues seemed to conquer their surroundings, meet new people, go after challenges with excitement and confidence. I fulfilled my responsibilities, but few knew what it cost me in effort and self-effacement. To this day, I don’t like making entrances into groups, even with lots of practice.

Mozart, for all his talent, was limited by finances, by many moves because of the constant striving for gainful employment, and finally, by his decline in health. To an admiring public, his great success and prodigious output as a musician tend to mask his personal constraints.

Once I could name them, by way of personality and role-preference tests, what I considered my limitations seemed daunting. The tests named them for me: I was a “slow processor.” I was not a “multi-tasker.” “Strategic thinking” was not my forte. I was a “designer” but not a “developer.”

These insights were eye-openers for me. They explained some of my challenges. No wonder, for instance, I lost every argument with my teenage daughter who was a lightning-quick processor. No wonder it was 11:00 am before I felt like I was actually starting the day, even though I’d been up for hours, doing things. No wonder I needed someone to help me find out how to get from point A to point Z when I was lost in clouds of mystifying details. No wonder I had drawers full of unfinished projects: quilt tops, watercolors, poems, children’s baby books, photo albums.

Learning to understand ourselves and what we feel are our limitations helps us to navigate life’s exigencies a little more wisely. I learned that I did not have to have an immediate, well-thought-out response to every teenage challenge; I could give myself time to think. I learned to meet the day, knowing young children and interruptions would be part of it; I began to practice being thankful for even a small task accomplished. I learned that my unfinished projects would still be there later, and I now have the fun of picking up some of them where I left off.

Very slowly, I learned to quit comparing my limitations to others’ abilities. A foolish thing to do in any case; they had their own limitations. And I was, in reality, contented to be me. I did not want an extrovert, activity-driven life, even though I could admire friends with those temperaments and rejoice in their accomplishments. I knew women who baked chocolate-chip cookies at midnight! I did not want that kind of drive.

Our limitations can be gifts in disguise. The writer Flannery O’Connor, like Mozart, had a short life. She was afflicted with lupus, a crippling disease with energy-draining treatments. She could work on her novels and stories only two hours a day, but she wrote prolifically in those two hours. In a letter to a friend she said: “We are all rather blessed in our deprivations if we let ourselves be, I suppose.” She loved to be with people, but her disease and energy level required a restricted life. The compiler and editor of her letters writes: “Once she had accepted her destiny, she began to embrace it, and it is clear…that she knew she… [was]… exactly where she belonged.” She died at age 44.

If we accept them, our limitations can have an alternate side, a positive one, possibly even a blessing.

While I still sometimes chafe at the things that seem to restrict me, I can also appreciate them as latitude for my personality and whatever gifts or abilities I have. I can be alone, for instance, and enjoy it. I can putter around with my projects and relish the process rather than feel the need to race to a finished product. I can take hours to write a poem or make a birthday card for a friend or my husband and feel great satisfaction in doing so, even when the laundry has to wait. I can work in my flower beds and sigh over their imperfection and what I haven’t gotten done this year but find solace in the thought that there’s next year. I cook from scratch instead of buying ready-made products because I love creating good meals on my own, chopping, kneading, rolling out dough, even when it takes longer.

Limitations come in other forms, of course. We are limited by twenty-four hours every day. And of that twenty-four, we need to devote seven or eight of them to sleep. That is a limitation we can be thankful for. When we lived in Germany, shops closed half days on Saturdays and Wednesdays and all day on Sundays. I was thankful for those limitations. I had to think ahead. And it was with a sense of real freedom that I knew—I can’t go to the store, hurray! If I’d forgotten something, well, we could do without. Learning to do without can be instructive and even beneficial. Doing without helps us develop creativity as well as forethought.

We are thankful for certain limitations on our freedom. We are not free, for instance, to murder our enemy. We are not free to trample on someone who gets in our way. We are not free to rob the bank or steal our neighbor’s trash can. I am not free to go out at midnight and dig up the beautiful flowering bush I see down the street in someone’s yard and put it in my own.

Jesus put further limitations on us besides the obvious ones. To hate my neighbor or my brother in my heart is the same, he said, as murder. To want another woman’s husband with lustful intent in my heart is tantamount to adultery. Those limitations put a check on my hateful thoughts and my jealous or lustful desires. I can be thankful for those limitations put on me and on others, as well. I want those limitations to be theirs, too.

I have an elderly neighbor who is limited in her ability to walk. It is with struggle that she can push herself up out of her chair, hold on to her walker and come to the door when I knock. When I apologize for making her get up, she says, “Oh no! I need to get up!” She would love to be able to take walks, as I can, but she is thankful that she can still come to her door, even when she can’t go beyond it. She is consistently cheerful, the mark of a contented person. She helps me look at my limitations in a different light.

If I am not a Mozart, neither am I limited to making mud pies. If I am a slow processor, at least I can process. If I am an introvert, I can be thankful for my love of quiet, a rarity in a noisy world. Because I am not a multi-tasker, I can enjoy processes that perhaps someone else would rush through, missing the patience it requires.

If I am limited by time in this life—and each of us is in one way or another—I can learn to make the most of the time I’m given.

It is, after all, the only time I can count on.

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