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The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition.
—Henrietta Cordelia Ray, “Limitations”
Henrietta Cordelia Ray names a truth most of us spend our lives gliding past: There’s a barrier between what we can do and what we feel we need to do, between the entrance to the tunnel and that infamous light at the end we know will flicker out before we’ve reached it. We feel this limit’s presence, yet we’ve agreed as a family of humans that our maximum capacity is worth warring against—we won’t “go gentle.” We hit the alarm again and drink a cup of coffee and promise ourselves this time we’ll make it work.It rarely does.
As a limit-pusher myself, I know. There was something about the “advanced track” grade-schooler in me that wouldn’t allow for any “no” or “maybe later” moments from the very beginning. Visions of imperfect music recitals kept me awake at night by age six, and by age eight, an A minus was the greatest evil. I remember squinting through tears at my level one piano books, glaring at the bright illustrations that mocked my inability to play the G-F#-E pattern. I commanded my tiny fingers to march orderly down the scale, but like disobedient soldiers, they fell out of line. My mom would say, stop, it’s okay to take a break. I sank down into the couch to read a book but returned to the piano bench a few minutes later. It was something I just couldn’t do, and yet there was something addictive about the grasping for it. I guess that’s why we talk about reaching our limits.
I took a calculus course my junior year of high school. An eighty-year-old professor named Henry Kramer, more animated and dapper than your average Midwestern grandfather, came to teach it. He was the kind of man who said every year would be his last, that he was ready to be a “real retiree” now. But he’s still there.
Mr. Kramer taught us about limits: the values in functions that rendered them meaningless, undefinable. The limit of f(x) = (x2 − 1)/ (x − 1) is 1, since the operation (12 − 1)/ (1 − 1) is mathematically impossible. He would draw one of his graphs on the board, exclaiming, “You might give me a point near the limit, and I’ll say, ‘here’s another that’s closer, here’s another!'” He’d gesticulate with the dry erase marker, white eyebrows rocketing into his hairline. “I can get closer!”
This battle cry of Mr. Kramer’s became our class mantra. “What did the calculus student say to their date?” “I can get closer!” But beyond my professor’s verve, the idea of an official, mathematical, real ending to things, an actual cut-off where even numbers couldn’t be true anymore, enraptured me. There’s an end to all things, it seems.
When it comes to limits, our bodies are relentless in reminding us. We’re incapacitated by paper cuts, food poisoning, or a quick slip on the ice. In Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “Our bodies are set up so that we have to loosen our grip on self-sufficiency and power if we are to thrive.” Our bodily limits are reminders of our mortality and dependence on something Beyond. “Not only are we going to die someday, but even in our meantime we are limited. Our bodies are bound by our flagging capacity,” Harrison Warren reflects.
At age seventeen, a handful of weeks into fervent violin practice for an audition, I noticed a dull tension building in my wrists. As I continued to play, it snaked up the sides of my thumbs, an ache that then pooled in the muscles in my palms. Heeding only the pressing need to practice, to find that last possible point before perfection, I disregarded the pain, but with the weeks of playing, it escalated to a searing sensation. While my mind and my will and my heart aligned, intending to master the music, my body was unable. I had reached my limit.
Three years later, the pain is still there. Having learned my breaking point, I calculate daily the amount I can play before my body rebels. It’s tempting, especially in periods where the aches lie dormant, to increase the load (“I can get closer!”). But day after day—as it likely will remain as long as I’m alive and playing—overreaching this limit leaves me cradling my own hands, rendered useless by the work I’ve done.
Harrison Warren suggests that “Facing our frailty and limitations reminds us of what it is to be human. . .precisely because it undoes any illusion we have of our own invincibility and merit.” Confronting the fact that our most inconvenient, burdensome, unappealing moments are actually tethering us to our humanity and relieving the pressures of performance and self-reliance reframes our experience of our mortal boundaries. Yet what God would wield grace as a knife, tearing me from fingertips to forearm to cleave the pride from my detrimentally human body?
If anyone was thrust into the crux of mercy and malady, torment and tenderness, it was Job. Plagued by boils, wasting away from the outside in, childless, destitute, accompanied only by three friends who were all too eager to explain his circumstances to him, Job realized the weight of mortality. It’s always struck me as strange—rude, even—that God didn’t offer Job a divine high-five or some sort of “it was Satan all along,” but rather met Job’s questions with more. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” the LORD roars. “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
For chapters and chapters, God tells Job what he is not: not the one who flung the stars into space and watched as they soared into constellations, not the one who dreamt up the most wretched sea monsters and closed them in with the doors of the deep. Job trembles, humiliated, humbled, humanized. “Surely I have spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
God’s entrance in this story offers anything but a straightforward explanation. Although God did smite Job’s fake friends and return his wealth, the point of God’s arrival is to show us who we are dependent upon. Knowing we’ll never be satisfied by the flowchart of explanation that we ask for, God instead chooses to embody God’s self, not demanding we use supernatural force to arrive at God’s level (as we would prefer to do) but instead descending to ours. (I guess that’s the whole point of the incarnation.)
Job does one more thing: he covers himself in dust and ashes, tangible reminders of transience. We were made from dust; we’ll return to dust. The ashes of all created things—mighty trees, the monsters of the deep, wealthy and important people—all look the same and are mingled together in death. In donning ash, Job does more than concede his limits: he engages in an act of worship, embracing them as God’s gift.
And so, in my most human moments — the undignified inconvenience of physical pain, the humiliating periods of confusion and seeming divine distance, I “put on ash” as Job once did and remember. Remember that the pursuit of perfection denies my right to be frail. Remember that the aches and pains of being alive are the physical manifestation of love. Remember that my limits are the space where God most wants to dwell.