Since childhood, I’ve had a recurring nightmare: I’m walking in a darkened space and come across a thick glass wall. As I’m exploring it, the other walls and ceiling assemble quietly around me, forming a prison I can see through but not escape. And then, as is the way with such dreams, things get worse. The glass box begins to fill with water. Eventually, the air runs out, and with one final gasp, I wake up.
A literal interpretation of this nightmare is wrong, as I’m an excellent swimmer and have no fear of drowning. The typical symbolic meaning, that I am anxious and overwhelmed, doesn’t really jive either. I thrive on busyness. The real source of anxiety—the thing I fight in the waking world and the sleeping one—is limitations.
I constantly feel as if I should be doing more with what I’ve been given. When I hear people are needed to welcome immigrants and help them settle in their new country, I want to respond, “Count me in.” Caring for the elderly, counseling unwed mothers, visiting prisoners, housing orphans—the answer will always be yes because I don’t want a narrow, shriveled life spent in isolation. I’d rather be, as the poet John Donne puts it, “Like gold to airy thinness beat,” expanding ever outward and ready to generously embrace anything and anyone.
There’s a biblical mandate for this, after all. Our lives are to be “poured out as a drink offering” and our bodies offered “as a living and holy sacrifice (Phil. 2:17; Rom 12:1). There’s just one problem, one fly in the proverbial do-gooder ointment: I put in eight hours a day at work and then go home to job number two, caring for my husband and two adopted sons. Besides the run-of-the-mill needs of homework, dinner, and bedtime, there are speech therapy sessions, tutoring, and counseling to see to. And when those things are all completed, the day is pretty well exhausted. To tell the truth, so am I.
“Why is there never enough time?” I rail in frustration to my husband, who sits and nods sympathetically, patiently waiting until my whirling-dervish moment is over. Ever the pragmatist, he lists off all the to-dos we accomplish and reminds me of one stark, inescapable fact: We have children, and adding something else (or many something elses) isn’t an option right now.
Whenever he says it, I swear I can hear those glass walls sliding into place.
Ever the redeemer of minutes, I argue that we can do both. That we can raise our boys and let them serve alongside us. “It will benefit them,” I say, “to see their parents engaged in some kind of ministry. They’ll come to love service as we do and will want to do it themselves.”
But the truth of the matter is, our boys are a pretty high-maintenance duo. For the first few years of their lives, their basic needs weren’t met. They grew up without physical safety or emotional security and are dealing with some developmental delays as a result. It’s a tall order, but one we’re making progress on day by day. “They are our ministry right now,” my husband reminds me. “We’re doing precisely what we’re called to do in this season, so let’s do it well rather than work ourselves stupid trying to do more.”
I know he’s right, but I sure hate being told no. In my family, challenges have always been things to climb over and defeat, not something to lie down in the dirt and die in front of. Like Major-General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, we advance on, never retreating or standing still. Hence, I’ve always believed that with enough planning and effort, nothing is impossible. Through my children, God is working to relieve me of that breathtakingly far-fetched (and all too human) notion.
Some days, I pound my fists against the glass walls He has placed in my life, hoping the barrier will shatter and let me breathe again. However, I’m slowly coming to understand that limitations aren’t goads to kick against, but a means of growth. Wendell Berry’s essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms” has proven invaluable in helping me come to terms with the purpose and value of boundaries. In this essay, Berry argues that much like marriage—which requires exchanging words to make and keep vows—poetry thrives within limitations of style and language. We know what poetry is because it adheres to a standard of beauty and musicality. Nothing else qualifies. “Certain limits,” Berry says, are “imposed before the beginning.”
He also says, “A form is a way of accepting and living within the limits of creaturely life” and it “empowers time to do good.” It’s easy to forget in our follow-your-heart-and-forge-your-own-path culture that we are created beings—not the masters of our own destinies. Without God-given structure, we are prone to wander like the unruly sheep Jesus lovingly says we are. The gentle borders we bump up against aren’t punishments; we aren’t being kept from something amazing just over the next hill. Instead, they give meaning to the little corners of the universe we call home, and by fully inhabiting those spaces, by moving and having our being within them (and in the One who created them), we come to true life. (See Acts 17:28.) As Berry says, “The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
This truth of this was made evident on my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I only had a few hours to explore this amazing place, so I prepared a must-see list, planning to hit as many as possible. Magritte, Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, Monet, Kahlo, Dalí—they came rapid-fire, so bright and beautiful my heart could hardly take them all in. The more I saw, the stronger my hunger grew, and I began to zip from one to the next, trying to lay my eyes on each piece, if only for a moment. I was looking at everything and seeing nothing.
And then came “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, a painting reproduced on countless socks and coffee mugs. Yet standing there, I realized I’d never really seen it. The paint was thickly layered, giving the cypresses and swirling sky a depth that 2D could never recreate. And the colors! They were so much brighter than I’d ever imagined. My eyes swam in a dozen shades of blue and green, and the lemon-yellow quarter moon pulled me into the scene without deigning to ask permission.
I stood entranced before this famous work of art for the better part of 20 minutes, moving methodically from one portion of the canvas to another. I walked on the gently rolling hills in the background and felt the cool evening breeze move through the grass. It was as if the museum had fallen away and only what was happening inside the frame felt real. That painting? I can say I truly saw it. Forcing myself to stop running and dwell fully inside a masterpiece allowed me to appreciate so much more than if I’d sprinted past. That's what boundaries do—compel us to appreciate the limitations of our lives as well as glories within them we might otherwise miss.
Yes, restrictions prevent me from accomplishing many of the things I’d like to do (things that also happen to be good and pleasing to the Lord), but they are, at the same time, opening up new worlds of possibility. Because of my sons, I’ve learned that my heart has more room for love in it than I ever knew and that motherhood—a calling I thought myself unfit for—is actually in my wheelhouse. I more fully appreciate my husband as he’s grown into the leadership role for which God designed him. And because I, Little Miss Independent, must ask for help to keep this whole crazy parenthood thing going, I’m discovering the value of Christian community and the blessing that comes from receiving aid as well as offering it.
By simplifying my world for now, reducing it to the four walls of my home (which I once would have considered a prison sentence), my heavenly Father has shown me what is good, and He is sanctifying me in ways busyness would have never permitted. Once again, Berry’s words are wise ones. By staying put, we see “the world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness—and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.” No, I’m not everywhere I want to be, but I’m exactly where I need to be. This isn’t the life I planned on, but it’s better and richer and altogether more lovely than any I could make. It is enough. And, in it, so am I.
I may not always embrace it fully, but I understand that being generous doesn’t mean I’m required to run myself ragged. It has much more to do with the quality of the work than the quantity. God asks only that I fully inhabit and embrace my life, that I explore every inch and tend well to whatever or whoever dwells within it. Today, that means loving my husband, teaching my boys what it is to be a part of a genuine family and helping them grow up straight and true, serving others God brings into my sphere, and waiting patiently in the stillness for what comes next.
Illustrations by The Mahoney Studio