The gifts of our limitations

What happens when you can’t change your circumstances? When “mind over matter” gets you nowhere? CPX Associate Steph Kate Judd, writing for Eureka Street, describes the possibilities that open up when we exchange fierce independence for grace-filled dependence.⠀

When I was a teenager, something glitched in my brain and central nervous system and my hand stopped working. Over the course of a year, I went from playing in orchestras to being unable to hold a pencil; from being in the top team of every sport I played to being unable to throw a ball. I’d baffled the world’s top neurologists and exhausted every avenue of medical testing. Contrary to all the advice I’d absorbed to that point, the harder I tried, the worse things got. The right side of my body simply did and does not cooperate with my mind’s instructions. My involuntary muscle seizures worsened and became a constant part of my life. They are to this day.

Growing up, I don’t really ever remember being taught how to deal with frustration. The mantras of the schools I went to were all about being able to do anything you put your mind to – ‘mind over matter’. If you try hard, you’ll succeed. If you are disciplined and tactical, you’ll be able to overcome the things that hold you back. But what do you do when that proves to be manifestly untrue? What do we do when no amount of determination will change our frustrating circumstances?

Whatever else this pandemic has brought about, it has schooled us all about living with frustration. Cancelled plans, the general malaise of Zoom, indefinite separation from loved ones, not having anything to look forward to, financial stress, missing significant life events… The cumulative frustrations bubble away just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much for them to burst through our surge capacity.

It’s fair to say that I have had to learn a lot about living with frustrating circumstances that are outside of my control. I don’t for a second pretend to have always handled this well. There have been plenty of moments I’m not proud of and more than my fair share of meltdowns. But I have gleaned a lot from the other people living with a disability that I have met along the way; people who have been dealt a difficult hand, and yet have still found ways to thrive within the parameters they now find themselves. And so, when it comes to how we can try to handle our limitations better and more gracefully, there is a rich vein of wisdom we can mine from the experiences of other people: those who are living with constraints they did not choose and cannot change.

‘There is a rich vein of wisdom we can mine from the experiences of other people: those who are living with constraints they did not choose and cannot change.’

One such lesson I have learnt is that there are gifts to be received from our limitations if we embrace them. To be human is to be limited, and that has a great deal to do with the fact that we don’t just have a body; we are a body. One of the difficulties of the ‘mind over matter’ mantra is that it is undergirded by a view that the body is just a lump of matter to be mastered and tamed, an instrument to be used by the ‘real me’: my rational, autonomous will. It gives priority to the mind over the body in a way that I think neglects the full range of the human experience. It is as bodies that we make our way through the world. And because of this, there are certain challenges that we all face: we are finite and subject to vulnerability. Our physical bodies experience fatigue and frailty and pain. There are certain given realities about our bodies that we did not choose and which shape much of what is possible for us in how we express our agency. To be human is to be embodied, and inherent to our embodiment are certain constraints.

Whilst these present challenges, it is precisely those limitations that open up relational possibilities which can lead us to deeper flourishing. I like to think of myself as a strong-minded woman, and for much of my life I have tried to cultivate a fierce independence. But my physical limitations have led me to have to depend more fully on other people, and in that sense, I consider them a gift. Whether it be asking for a lift because I can’t walk any further on account of the pain, or accepting an offer to carry my groceries because my dystonia has seized up, I need more help, more often. In asking for help, I am able to press into and participate in networks of grace-filled giving and receiving.

It is precisely in the location of my need that deeper and richer encounters with the people in my life are made available to me. When we are vulnerable to the people in our life, we create opportunities for intimacy, for self-disclosure, for understanding. If relationships are the most real and meaningful thing in life, which I suspect is the case, then anything that fosters deeper relationships is to be embraced, not resisted or resented. That includes our limitations.

Stephanie Kate Judd is a solicitor who has been involved in legal advocacy for the interests of various kinds of vulnerable persons. She is an Associate at the Centre for Public Christianity.