"Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials. We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials." --Parker Palmer
The propellers hummed and my plane lifted off the dirt runway. As we gained altitude, I looked back over the East African horizon. Tears of exhaustion streamed down my cheeks. I was leaving South Sudan, to go start a new life in New York City. The question reverberated in my mind: how could I leave one of the poorest places in the world to go live in the richest? Was I betraying this struggling country? And if I left, who would help fix the problems of South Sudan?
As you look out at the world, the problems can be overwhelming. Every country, community, family, and person has things they struggle with. As you discern how to use your life, figuring out which areas to devote your life to will be one of the hardest, yet most important tasks. Because of this, I want you to think about how your limits interact with the opportunities before you.
a culture of unlimited opportunities
Over the last several generations, the relatively simple life of generations past has morphed into something much more complex. Young people used to live in their hometown, get married to someone they had known for years, and often follow in their family's traditional occupation. Now, that lifestyle has been replaced with one of choice and movement. Due to globalization, international travel, and the internet, you're now flooded with unlimited options in almost every area of life. Consider how your options have exploded in a few areas just in the past several years:
- Netflix: unlimited movies/TV shows to watch
- Amazon: unlimited books to read
- Instagram: unlimited people to meet
- Spotify: unlimited music to listen to
- Dating apps: unlimited people to date
- Twitter: unlimited news/knowledge of the problems in the world
- Colleges: unlimited both in where to attend and what to study
While these changes have brought about some great things, it's fundamentally changed how we view our lives and make decisions. Too often, unlimited options overwhelm us and create an environment of no options at all. Netflix exemplifies this paradox: you scroll through a thousand different options, yet can't find anything to watch. So how do you navigate all of the opportunities that you have in life?
the tension between doing anything and doing everything
This proliferation of options has burrowed into our milieu, and changed how everyone views their life. As society embraced the idea of unlimited options, we were encouraged as kids that we could be anything we wanted to be. Contrary to some, I don't think this is incorrect. After all, I grew up in a tiny Kansas town surrounded by farming, and now I live in New York City and write. The problem is not with the statement but rather that we interpret the "you can do anything!" message to mean, "you can do everything!" There's a huge difference between the two; we all have the opportunity to do lots of things, but we only have the capacity and potential to do a few of them.
This disconnect between unlimited opportunities and limited capacities creates tension in our lives. With this pressure to do more and more, we pursue opportunity after opportunity, whether in the jobs we do, friendships we make, or places we live. We're afraid of limiting ourselves by committing to one thing, wondering if there's a job, relationship, or city that's a better fit for us. And when we do commit, we continue thinking about the other possibilities, wondering if we made a mistake.
what happens when you try to do everything
In your expectation to be able to do everything with your life, you work and work. Every young person believes they are a special case and will soar above the restrictions that hold others back. But then you hit a wall of exhaustion, frustration, or emptiness called limits. Here are the limits that every person faces in life:
- You have one life, and can only be in one place at a time: every person only gets to live life once. You can only spend each day one way, and once you do, you can't go back. You choose one college to go to, you marry one person, and you can only live in one place at a time.
- You have limited skills: surprise, but you aren't good at everything. Each of us has a skill-set that qualifies us to do some things well, but conversely limits us from doing other things well. So many, out of ignorance or a desire for prestige, try to operate outside of their natural giftings. Eventually, most people get tired of that uphill battle, and go back to where God has gifted them.
- You only have 24 hours in a day: you only have so much time and can only do so much. You can only use your time each day in a few ways, and you have to choose which friendships, jobs, and events to invest in.
- Your human capacities are finite: the human body is an amazing thing, but you are still a finite being. You are a person, not a machine, and you need to eat, sleep, and exercise every day. Also, you only have the capacity to learn and retain so much information, and end up forgetting most of life.
If you struggle with busyness, exhaustion, stress, weight gain, and feelings of emptiness, you're body is trying to tell you that you are trying unsuccessfully to live beyond your limits. When you try to fly above the limits of your life, you may succeed for a few years, but you'll eventually come crashing down.
you deny your limits and try to do it all
Throughout my first year in New York City, I thought I must have gotten it wrong. I had moved to Brooklyn and started a cleaning business, trying to learn a new city and way of life on the fly. But I felt like I wasn't doing enough. I cleaned apartments for rich people while children in South Sudan went hungry, not to mention all of the poor and homeless in New York City. Shouldn't I be doing more with my life? I began to wonder if moving to New York had been the wrong decision.
As members of a culture that both tells us everything is possible and worships achievement, we all feel pressure to do more. Because of the knowledge of the problems in the world and the breadth of opportunities that exist, many young people feel pressure to achieve beyond their limits: they want to have a full time job, start a nonprofit for kids in Africa, volunteer on Saturdays in the inner city, maintain five best friendships, and says yes to every social event.
While few people ever actually live a life like that, the pressure to make the most of your opportunities makes you wonder: should I be doing more with my life? So we look out at all of the problems and opportunities in the world and we feel guilty, wondering: who will help if I don't?
- A computer programmer wonders if he should move to Uganda to help orphans.
- A school teacher wonders who will reform Wall Street if she doesn't.
- A banker feels guilty and wonders if he should teach at an inner city high school.
- An accountant wonders if her life is a failure if she doesn't do something big, like help with the current refugee crisis.
- A woman feels so burdened with the struggles of her peers that she spends every free moment ministering to them.
Living in New York City brought my struggle with my limits to the surface. I set out to accomplish three lifetimes of work in one, and felt frustrated when nothing seemed to be happening. I tried meeting everyone and doing everything, making promises that I didn't have the time or energy to later deliver on. If I'm not directly helping anyone, maybe God wants me to move to a different opportunity?
the world doesn't need another savior
What I, and so many other people, struggle with is a savior mentality: the idea that I have to be the one who saves the world. This savior mentality springs out of something called functional atheism, where we talk about God as savior and give assent to His promises, but inwardly believe nothing will happen unless we do it ourselves. When we struggle with functional atheism, we deny God's complete control over the events of the world, and try to usurp His authority in order to become the world's savior.
Functional atheism, combined with our cultural individualism, creates a superhero mentality for many of us. This causes us to live our lives in one of two ways:
- Pressure to try to do it all: this person sees the problems and tries to be the superhero. They spring into a flurry of activity trying to solve problems all over the country and world. This mindset leads to busyness and overwork but few lasting results, as you are trying to do more than God has called you to do.
- Paralyzed by the scope of the problems: this person thinks they have to be a superhero to do anything, so, feeling insufficient to the task, they don't do anything. This mindset leads to apathy, since you don't feel confident that you can help.
Both of these paths, whether you try to blow past your limits or never even test them, lead to the same place: the constant question of "Am I doing enough?" and the accompanying guilt that you're not.
your limits lead you to God
But the presence of limits in your life is not an accident. God put them there to force you to Him. Our society views limits as negatives, unwelcome intrusions on our personal freedom. To God, though, your limits are healthy boundaries that make us give up our savior mentality and let God by the savior again.
- God works through everyone: Remember, you aren't the only one that God is using to build His kingdom. God is working through millions and millions of Christians around the world to accomplish His plan, so don't take on more than what God has called you to. Your job is to answer God's call on your life and not to save the world. Also, keep in mind that your life has seasons, and God might be preparing you for a future calling that is different from your current one today.
- God calls you to live for depth, not breadth: Jesus commands you to love your neighbor. I don't think it is an accident that He didn't choose the person living next to you as the object for your love. God calls you to specific people and communities, so once you know where that is, invest your life in those people. Too many Christians hover over their communities, talking about grand plans to save the world while refusing to leave their comfortable circles and engage in the hard work of loving their neighbors.
- Prayer connects a limited person to a limitless God: Given your limited ability to influence the world, God gives you prayer as the means to have a limitless impact through Him. Prayer brings your concerns for the world to the God who is big enough to do something about them.
Even though it been four years since I left, I still think about South Sudan almost every day. I think about the beauty and the suffering, the laughter and the hunger, wondering why God didn't call me there. But God has called and gifted me to live in New York City, and wants me to work within the limits of my life for His glory here. God uses tiny events and little lives, including yours and mine to accomplish His plan and usher in His kingdom.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." (God speaking to Job) Job 38:4