Saturday, July 18, 2015

on being finite

As a child, life stretched out interminably before me, holding an endless array of choices and possibilities. What do you want to be when you grow up? was the question that punctuated a long and happy childhood. No career was out of the question. My dreams held no bounds. My pint-sized mind was pregnant with possibility. Missionary-scientist-teacher? Bible translator-orphanage director? At one point I decided to become a missionary-astronaut-famous singer. I had my schedule all worked out in advance: I would spend several years overseas doing mission work, and then during furlough I would squeeze in a space mission and a concert tour before resuming my work in Africa.

How could I have anticipated the exhausting pace of what is erroneously called "furlough," or the rigorous preparation required for a trip to outer space, or the endless hours of practice and coordination to schedule a road show? My dreams were good ones, but I had yet to discover my own finitude.

We are given only so many hours, only so many days, and only so many years. Chances are that we will not be able to pursue every hobby that tickles our fancy, or learn every skill that would be handy to know, or volunteer for every worthwhile activity. Even as an adult, I have far more visionary ideas than I do energy to carry out those ideas. (I should bring a meal to so-and-so, or help with such-and-such, or start making my own this-and-that.) That leads to overpromising, overcommittment, pressure, guilt, and stress. Just because I can do something (in theory), does not mean that I should, even if it's commendable or I would be good at it.

Perhaps in days gone by one could aspire to be a 'renaissance man,' mastering knowledge in a wide range of subjects. That age has expired, and with it my dreams of being an astronaut or scientist or Bible translator or famous singer or counselor or midwife. I've given up on quilting and canning (at least for now), writing children's books, learning to paint, or taking an active role in the PTSO of my children's school or our neighborhood association. I cannot do everything. I have limits. For the time being, I study and write. When time allows, I read fiction and go camping and play games and take pictures. Once a year I even work on the family photo album. But mostly I dissertate. When that is done I will teach. And that will leave precious little time for anything else.

Almost-38-years old seems a strange time in life to start slashing my list of ambitions. I am interested in more things than ever before -- languages, geology, travel, world economics, traditional arts, gardening -- but I'm also more aware of my limitations. I am not a machine, I am a human being. That means I need balance, margins, rest. I can't do everything. Neither can you.

It's freeing to know that although God invites our active participation in his work, he does not expect us (in particular) to do it all. We invest what we can, when we can, as he provides the means. The rest is up to him. Our finitude drives us to depend on the infinite God for the strength to do what he has called us to do -- nothing more, nothing less.

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