The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.Arthur C. Clarke
Pulling up to my house, I saw the truck dumping a massive quantity of mulch onto my driveway. As I walked up, the driver stepped out and smiled saying “That’s a lotta mulch. That’ll keep you busy today.” I smiled bravely, knowing that it had been years since we had done our own spring cleanup on the beds around our house. Knowing that I had not tackled such a physical project since having my hip replaced last year. Fearing, that I might not have the strength or endurance to get the job done.
Doubt is an insidious companion. Walking beside you silently, quietly waiting for the opportunity to undermine any endeavor you seek to undertake. His presence mirrors our progression through life. Early-on, we are nearly impervious to him, recklessly fearless in those first steps followed by greater leaps until we find our limitations. From there, he makes himself known at every opportunity, dragging us brutally along the edge of realism and pessimism.
Life gifts us with a keen sense of our limitations. Our physical limits present themselves while we’re growing, gradually steadying to a comfortable range of activity then receding with age. The constant tests of life also remind us of our mental limits; literal academic tests as well as increasingly complex mental gymnastics required to solve the difficult challenges presented through day-to-day existence. Whatever direction we look, we see limits looming. Over time, they blend into the landscape as we accept them, rarely daring to challenge them lest they remind us of who is master.
With a clear sense of our limitations in hand, we pick and choose the battles we fight, the adventures we pursue, and the challenges we accept. We frame our dreams with our grasp of the impossible, the unlikely, and the not-to-be. “I can’t” becomes an unspoken mantra, hidden behind other excuses until one day we say it out loud and realize we mean it.
Hard limitations always begin with doubt. Sure, there are real limits to our capacities as human beings but we rarely hit them. We are quite content to pull up short of that dark place. Doubt creates a buffer. Doubt pulls us closer to the “safe” zone. Doubt protects us from an Icarus-like failure where we fly too close to the sun and see the wax melt from our feathers. Doubt also starts small, whispering “are you sure about this?”
Don’t misunderstand, self-protective instincts are quite important for survival. The problem comes when they grow into the habit of slowly shrinking our perception of our capacities. From doubt we move to shouldn’t which is just a few steps from can’t.
Preparing to tackle my pile of mulch, I did some pruning, digging, and raking in our beds. By the time I scooped my first pitchfork’s worth of mulch, the aches had already begun. Three wheelbarrow loads of mulch and doubt had made his appearance. A couple of more and fear stopped-by. “I’m not sure” turned to “Perhaps I shouldn’t” and then began to sound like “I can’t.”
Mustering our courage and “can-do” attitude, we often jump into a challenge with hopeful energy. We’re quite happy to try. There, we’ve left the door open to doubt’s wily ways. “I’ll give it a shot.” “Let’s see what we can do.” Doubt has already made himself comfortable, biding his time. When things get more difficult, the rationalizations begin. Is this worth it? What if that ache isn’t just a sore muscle? I’m not in shape for this. I have other things I need to be doing. And on and on and on.
Pretty soon, we’re saying we can’t complete whatever task is at hand and we call-in a lifeline (if we’ve got one) or bail altogether if we don’t. If we happen to have some discretionary dollars, we’ll punt our troubles to a younger, stronger, more motivated body. If we’re dealing with something that seems intractable in the office, we might call in a consultant. A bit of money makes doubt easy because it gives us the sense of a backup plan. If I can’t do it, I’ll pay for help.
Of course, “I can’t” becomes easier and easier as we wrestle with more difficult problems. Once we’ve crossed the threshold, we rarely test it again. Convincing ourselves that we can’t, we stop trying.
Not even a quarter of the way into my yard project, I said out loud “I’m not sure I can …” Gulp. Did I just say that? A mixture of anger and despair welled-up within me. Was I really at this point? A point where I physically was going to retreat from this project because of the discomfort and the fear of what might lie on the other side of it? Was it the fear of hurting myself or did I really think that I was unable to do this work?
Retreat is easy when we attach an activity to injury. Fear of injury is legitimate. It is self-protective and necessary for survival. However, we need to ask “Am I really at risk of injury or am I rationalizing my desire to stop the pain?” Perhaps the better question to ask is “How do I push forward without hurting myself?”
From “I’m not sure I can…” I proceeded to spend the next seven hours moving that mulch (thank you Sally for helping me!). Was it a miracle of mind over matter? Not really. I changed my approach. I tried different tools and techniques. I slowed down. I took a few more breaks. I stretched. I mixed activities so I wasn’t doing the same repetitive task for too long. Was it uncomfortable? Yes. Was I exhausted? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I have paid someone if they had come to my door and offered to help. Definitely.
For those of us in the firm grip of middle age and beyond, there are a steady stream of voices explaining away our limitations. Physical, mental, and spiritual. As we age, we’re given a pass on certain things. Oh, he’s 50 so he can’t (insert limitation here). Yeah, she’s 60 so she can’t (insert limitation here). That couple? They are 70 so they can’t (insert limitation here). My grandma is 80 so she can’t (insert limitation here).
I know, there are real limitations and we all should have a sense for ours. However, we should not be so quick to surrender to them. We should not be so fast to accept another’s assertion of our capacities. and sometimes, our own assertion. Perhaps we have more to say in it than we realize.
This morning, I’m watching the gray skies water our newly mulched flower beds with the kiss of a soft rain. Looking at the work completed, I think they look lovelier this year than ever.