On Younger Self Epiphanies and The Goodness of Limits

Epiphanies in my 20s looked like deep thought and deep feeling, unattached from the tethering forces of family, place, role, or life stage. They were found in the misty ocean air walking alone, contemplating the state of the world and the state of my soul. It all felt a bit more tumultuous then and that I was somehow on the cusp of becoming.

The world, as they say, was my oyster. And it felt like freedom. Fed the line: you can be anything you want to be, I hadn’t yet realized that that in fact, was patently untrue. Even if one’s dreams lined up like the stars on Orion’s belt, we live small, ordinary and conditional lives. 

Wendell Berry in an article more than a decade old (on climate change and our limited resources) writes: 

To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover “the secret of the universe.” We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. (“Faustian Economics“)

There’s something in the fabric of those younger-self epiphanies, that feels a bit like Berry’s limitlessness he warns us against—that we’ll somehow find the “secret to the universe” there. And I suppose that may be right for that age and stage of life, and yet it’s not where we need to stay. 

We can’t endlessly create ourselves an identity. 

Epiphanies can’t be about ourselves. 

Because I can’t know myself as I sit alone with abstract words. I know myself in community. I can’t know myself apart from the fabric of my life—with tissue-thin Bible pages on my bookshelf, with my tea or coffee I like, with the walking paths I walk to bring my children to school, with neighbors I am trying to get to know, with a church community I’m tethered to. These are the concrete, material-world-sorts-of-things that shape our souls. 

As Berry says, we tend to see any limits as confinement. 

And perhaps it’s middle age speaking, but it’s the fabric of relationship that re-orients a life. I am most fully myself when I recognize and work creatively within my limits. 

I must learn to live the limited, given life—not my imagined, idealized one. Where early adulthood epiphanies—I shall do XYZ! This person is the answer to my longings! If I have this career then I shall be content!—focused on manipulating my circumstances, there’s a gentler way now. 

Epiphanies come slowly, where you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a web of relation and that it all matters to your life, not poised like a swimmer ready to jump into the great pool of life that’s yours for the taking. I can’t conceive of my life now apart from calling, from the relationships I’ve committed to and the people and places in my life. 

While the options may have narrowed, the meaning hasn’t. January is often a time to reflect, to ponder, to make changes—but not to see the world as beginning again. That a new diet, or planner, or routine will be the silver bullet to make sense of your life. 

While I’ll be the first to say that our habits actually form us (along with our places), we cannot look to them as saving things. They are our rooting things, the ropes that anchor us to solid ground. While looking back at my younger self, it’s easy to see the so-called “freedom” I’ve lost—to ask where has that self gone with so much free time to muse, ponder, philosophize and banter—that limitless can’t hold a candle to this everyday, holy life I lead. 

It’s not that I’ve “arrived.” The given life has welcomed me into more pain and a closer discerning of limits than I would’ve chosen years ago on that sea-side cliff. I’m tethered to a husband, four children, a place and a church, even when I don’t love it. They are all mine. 

Perhaps when epiphanies are mature, they are ours not mine, and from them, you can take a step back and praise God in the midst of it all. 

Ashley Hales

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