Personal Limitations and the Trinity
Tuesday was one of those days. I performed an after-hours update on a server used by Catholic Distance University, and within minutes it became clear that this “innocent” update had destroyed CDU’s reporting service. There followed eight straight hours of testing, uninstalling, reinstalling, researching and—all through the long dark night—failure.
By 6:30 am, I was ready to call it quits. It seemed clear that CDU was not going to have reports on Wednesday. A complete rebuild of the server was going to be necessary, and I was much too tired to begin that process. In a few hours, staff would begin to arrive. They would have to deal with it, and I’d check back in after getting some sleep. I left instructions for those who would have to pick up the pieces, and retired from the field.
I don’t like to leave things undone, and I especially dislike leaving others to clean up a mess I’ve made. I take such failures as a negative reflection on my personal capabilities and, when lack of ingenuity or energy is part of the problem, I see yet another sign that I am getting old. I should be able to keep going; I should be able to do this. To put the matter simply and honestly, I don’t like admitting my limitations.
Yet limits are an essential component of human potential. Human nobility is enhanced by the fact that we toil, struggle and, in fact, die. The thirst for immortality represented by so many horrific biomedical techniques is just a stunning reminder of how wrong our culture is about the benefits of limitation. It is precisely in recognizing our finiteness that we open up the true path of human achievement. Those who wish to make themselves infinite, refusing to recognize their radical dependence on Another, will find that greatness eludes them. Almost by definition, they are doomed to remain petty.
Limitation and Love
The benefits of limitation and dependency may be illustrated in a thousand ways. In the purest metaphysical sense, of course, if we were completely unlimited, we would have to be God, which is impossible. Viewed on a smaller scale, if we were unlimited, we would all be the same. The root of differences, of course, is limitation, which is also a key component of choice. Much of the glory of being human consists of how we respond to all sorts of limitations, and how we interact with each other in complementary ways because of our differences.
It is the very nature of personhood to be able to enter into relations with others. For human persons, these relationships are colored and shaped by our limitations, and not always in negative ways. It is precisely the limitations of maleness and femaleness, for example, which create that unique thirst for unity and wholeness which is at the root of the relationship between men and women. Paternity, maternity and childhood are similarly rooted in limitation. Group efforts depend on limitation and, therefore, interdependence, to achieve tremendous goals. Finally, our limitations lead to a certain spiritual restlessness which finds fulfillment in God, who alone is infinitely satisfying. Indeed, limitation is constitutive not only of possibility, but of love.
We should not be surprised, then, that it is precisely an awareness and acceptance of our limitations which makes life ultimately more satisfying. If we are in denial, we are doomed to perpetual discontent. After all, we can’t possibly think we “measure up” unless we are proud and spiritually blind. But in the humility of limitation we can relax, enjoying both our own gifts and those of others, and take consolation in the fact that if we depend upon others, so do they depend upon us.
In this way, limitation is really tremendously liberating. Our willingness to accept our own limitations, both of nature and of personality—indeed our recognition of limitation as a good—becomes a key to happiness. This patient embrace of limitation shapes everything for the better: our physical health, our emotional state, our spirituality, our relationships. Wiser men than I have demonstrated that even the imagination reaches its summit when it explores limitation rather than infinity (see, for example, Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination by Fr. William F. Lynch, 1960).
In the End
The possibilities of limitation are perhaps represented most dramatically by death. It is a sad and ignoble thing to be dragged kicking and screaming to the grave. The wise among us go joyfully, or at least quietly, into that good night. A lifetime spent appreciating our limits, which lead us so thoroughly to depend on God alone, is by far the best preparation for that ultimate limitation which each one of us must find a way to accept.
As it turns out, of course, it is precisely in accepting this limitation that we find our greatest opportunity for ultimate happiness. It is not only that if we rail at human frailty we rail in vain. It is rather that limitation is a fruitful seed. God Himself accepted limitation in order to teach and save. Or, as He put it, He became limited that we might have life, and have it to the full. Here we have the paradox of the human, the counter-intuitive proposition that limitation can beget life.
One wonders why we hesitate. It is, after all, very Trinitarian. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Life, Limitation, and Love. For us, limitation comes naturally. It is the key to all the rest.
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