Reminders of human finitude take surprising forms. A recent back injury that refuses to abate has raised spiritual questions for me. Am I supposed to be learning patience? Giving thanks in all circumstances? Slowing down or grinning and bearing it? Should I read that account of Jacob and the angel a few more times and try to take away a lesson? Is God trying to get me to submit, repent, beg for a blessing? Or did I just hurt my back because I am human — prone to injury and illness, bound to die?
Regardless, could my inability to walk with grace, wear stylish shoes and get up and down without wincing be a catalyst for plumbing deep questions about God and self, life and death, autonomy and interdependence? Some days I ponder such deep thoughts as I struggle to get out of my car. Other days I just wish to return to my pre-obviously-finite self. Every now and then I consider with increased compassion those facing chronic illness, unrelenting pain, degenerative diseases or an incurable diagnosis. In my best moments I recognize the blessing of good medical insurance, reliable transportation, a job that does not require physical labor. In my worst moments, I take my frustrations out on those closest to me.
In this less-than-100-percent-season, I recognize the uncertainty of life, our inability to know what tomorrow will bring, our lack of control over even our own bodies. If ever I thought I could will my way to health or just do it or use mind over matter, this experience of physical limitations, no matter how trivial in comparison to those of others, has taught me otherwise. Even with a will, there is not always a way and we all must eventually face this truth. To be human is to be finite and limited. Self-sufficiency – even when we are at the top of our game, the peak of our powers, the height of our competence – is a myth. Interdependence marks our creatureliness, and that need to rely on each other, while not easy to admit, in the end is a great gift.
Whenever possible, my daughter drives now. I ask for help with household chores. I felt lovingly chided by the young physical therapist, a fellow Christian who quoted Scripture as he reminded me that rest is not a suggestion but a commandment. Knowing, at least for right now, that I cannot do everything, I choose more carefully what gets done. Surprise of surprises, the world continues to spin. Surprise of surprises, others step in and step up gladly, eagerly, often.
At a recent retreat, my former pastoral care professor, Bill Arnold, reminded us that human finitude is not a sin but that we often conflate the two. I realize that I have done just that, judging myself, and sometimes others, harshly for creaturely limits. At a small gathering of writers, I shared an experience of painful, personal loss and said, “You are the first group who have held this with me.” To which one in the group replied, “Why did you think you had to carry it alone?” I said I didn’t know, but now I do. I saw my finitude as failure and that failure as sin and I was ashamed. My prideful autonomy cost me the gift of community and a means of needed grace. I don’t want to keep making that mistake.
Perhaps that is the blessing I am meant to wrestle from this time. Finitude is not sin. Finitude is merely human. God gives us one another to help us in our weakness, to uphold us when we cannot go it alone, to encourage us when our strength is failing and our faith floundering, too. I really want to be able to drive my manual transmission car again. I will welcome getting up from my desk without grimacing. But I never again want to pretend I can do everything myself, that surely if I just try hard enough, I will triumph, that self-sufficiency equals success. I no longer want to worship the idol of autonomy. I’d rather limp from holding fast to my God and be reunited with my brother then walk upright alone.
Grace and peace,