The Goodness of Limited Potential

Oh how our age hates limits. Limits of the body. Limits of the mind. Limits on our freedoms. Limits of space. Limits of time. God forbid we make just one commitment, lest we possibly miss out on some greater unforeseen opportunity. But as with so much of our humanity, limitations, when rightly understood, need not be negatively understood, rather they provide us with all that is necessary for true flourishing. After all, it is not the due to the Fall that we must sleep, that we can only work the soil beneath our feet, and that we can only know so much (of course, there are Fall related limits: death, sickness, etc., but this post is not speaking directly toward limits of that type).

I’ve always disliked some of our culture’s common catch phrases. “The sky is the limit.” “You can be anything your heart desires.” They might fit on a best-selling coffee mug, but more truth could be gained from blank white ceramic than from those types of statements. They are feel-goody phrases, that lie right to your face. And, when you think about it, should that make anyone feel good? 

Now, don’t take this the wrong way. What I’m not trying write here is any kind of, “The truth hurts,” type of post. No, the truth sets us free, both with pain and pleasure. And when it comes to our limits, the truth is that we cannot be anything we desire. That not all dreams should be pursued. That time, space, age, our past, our present, our body, our culture, our culture’s past, our culture’s present, that so many things beyond our immediate control, mold and shape the potential of our future. 

The sky in all its grand totality is indeed not our limit. Perhaps that little patch of ozone directly before our eyes is closer to the truth. Even our ability to perceive the sky is limited by where and what we are. We dream of infinity and beyond within a reality of the finite and here. But who wants to chase after the unobtainable and unreachable anyway? It’s a bit tiring in case you haven’t tried it out yet. 

Rather, what if we focused on this great gift of specificity? This body, what exactly can it do? What exactly was it designed to do? This neighbor, not the one I imagine or Google, but the one that I give that awkward wave to before we both head to work or when we are setting out our garbage cans at the same time, what precisely does our mutual presence separated by mere feet of asphalt mean? What could it mean? Oh, the possibilities.    

Interestingly enough, no one else on earth has or will ever have this exact range of possibilities before us. I will never have yours. You will never have mine. We are infinitely limited, but due to our ubiquitous finitude, we are also all unique and individual. There is no shadow whose feet will follow each path and every bend that our lives have tread down. Nor take those steps still on the horizon. Here we have that wonderful mingling of the communal and the individualistic. We need not idolize either. We need not neglect either. 

How freeing it can be to live as we are, where we are, and when we are. We all have the same types of limits, but that is no cause for lament. Instead, within this homogeneity of limitations, we find a staggering diversity of opportunity. As if every conversation is set apart for us to either bless or curse. As if each moment which we presently experience is held before us as an offering of opportunity. What shall we do with it? How shall we care for these countless moments of unique potential? 

And, now we must ask, isn’t this view of things a bit more exciting than the mundane trifle about being and doing anything we desire? Dreams can be fun, but they can also be the greatest of thieves. Held captive to clouds that are beyond our gaze, a great mass of them passes right over our heads. In the morning they reflect a vibrant orange. In the bright noon sky that swirl about with energy and excitement. In the cool of the evening, they are reborn with colors once again. In the night, they quietly shimmer and cast shadows even in the darkness. We’ve only to look up to see them. We’ve only to realize where and when we are to remember that they are the only ones that we can truly experience in the moment. But in a way, doesn’t that add a great significance to them? It is these clouds, and no others, that are in a substantial way ours

In his latest book, How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith powerfully highlights this goodness of our limitations (or our “gifted specificities”):

We are bundles of potentiality, but the possibilities are not infinite. We are thrown into a time and place, thrown into a story that is our history, and these form the horizons of possibility for us—our temporal halo we described earlier. That is not a limitation as much as a focusing, a gifted specificity. The corner of earth I’ve been given to till. These neighbors I’m called to love. These talents I’m exhorted to fan into flame. This neighborhood in which to birth a future. “Go with your love to the fields,” for the horizons that circumscribe you are not fencing you out of something but entrusting you to this field of possibility.1

All that might not fit on a coffee cup, but it’s definitely a better message. 

Notes:

  1. James K.A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022), 60 

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