I had been sick for about 9 months (undiagnosed) when I was invited to attend a Ladies’ Retreat that my college was throwing. It was an especially cold winter in Illinois, and we would be staying in cabins. I’m not the kind of person who is excited at camping, even in cabins, so my disposition was already set against it. But the real icing on the cake was that I had severe pain and cramping when exposed to cold temperatures (my first symptom). Nothing in me wanted to go.
I was involved in a few places of leadership at my school, and they were trying to get some people like me to go, who would be cheerful and create a happy atmosphere. I claimed that part of my hesitation was the cost, and they offered to pay my way to go. Ultimately, I felt guilty and decided “well, maybe I’ll be ok. Jesus will take care of me”.
I went. It was not a good idea. The room where we met for our sessions was not heated, not insulated, and had a concrete floor. Everyone else was wearing their bulky winter gear, gloves, and stocking hats, and seemed to be cold but okay. You would have had to wrap me in a cocoon of six down-comforters for me to be ok in that room. My choice was clear. Essentially, I could either go to the sessions and be writhing in pain, or I could stay in the cabin, which was slightly heated, and be alone.
I used to be stubborn when it came to boundaries and limits with my health, so of course I went to the sessions and lasted until tears were streaming down my face. I sat in the back so no one could see, and then would quietly excuse myself. I did this three times a day for three days. I wish I could tell you that I got smarter after this mess of an idea, but it took me about three more years before I finally decided to totally accept my circumstances, adapt to them, and be ok with it.
I didn’t know how contented I would eventually be living within my limits. It’s actually quite wonderful. You become more intentional about your choices. You stop giving lots of your energy to less important things. It’s hard, absolutely. You give up your old way of life. You give things up that you dearly love. You have to make choices of whether it’s more important that you be able to cook dinner or take a shower (because you won’t have enough energy for both). As Margaret Feinberg says in her book, “Fighting Back with Joy”, your life suddenly becomes about “or’s” rather than “and’s”. You won’t be able to do this AND that AND that other thing. You’ll have to choose this OR that OR the other thing. It’s frustrating and seems impossible when they all seem important. But, there is a way to slow down. It’s not natural, and it may require adjusting expectations, creativity or getting a lot of help from loved ones, but there is a way to slow down. And when we do, life is much better. When we stop beating our heads against the wall trying to do what we previously had done when we were healthy, we can finally rest and perhaps heal a little.
I fought this for years. I would have little “yellow flags” in my heart that “this isn’t a good idea”… But I would be compelled by love, or worse by guilt or by fear that people wouldn’t understand when I stop showing up. Perhaps people didn’t always understand these things, but I no longer make decisions because of guilt.
There is something freeing and beautiful about doing what you can do, and nothing more. My Lymie mentor gave me a great metaphor. It’s like you’re a person who comes to market to sell your peaches. People come by and purchase them throughout the day, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. That’s when you go home. People might still want to buy your peaches, but they have to come back the next day… BECAUSE THE PEACHES ARE GONE. You can’t buy a peach if there is no peach there. When we live this way: doing all that we can do, but nothing more…. We’re living with integrity. We’re living within our limits.
It’s strange, but being weaker can enlarge your life. It can make sweet moments richer; it can make you more grateful for the little things. I’m a Christian, and for someone who believes in Jesus, it can be rocking to have life circumstances get hard. It can bring up a lot of questions. My experience is that God has met me over and over again in an extremely personal way since I’ve been sick. I had a lot of head knowledge about God when I was healthy, but I didn’t rely on Him. When I was suddenly very weak, I got to experience His rescue on a daily basis. I knew I wasn’t strong enough, so when I had moments of strength, I knew it was His grace. And when I couldn’t stop crying, but I felt comfort… I knew it was Him. And when the little I could offer someone was exactly what they needed, I knew He could use the little I have to make a big impact.
Do you remember what I said earlier about going to that retreat? I had decided before I went: “Maybe it’ll be ok. Jesus will take care of me.” As I went back to my cabin each time, I would lay on the floor and cry. I would shake because I was crying so hard. I’m not going to lie… In my head, when I said, “Jesus will take care of me”, I meant that I expected Jesus to let me attend the sessions and participate fully in the retreat. This obviously didn’t happen. But I did experience comfort in those really deep moments where I felt most alone, where I felt separated from my friends, where I felt like no one understands or sees me. It was still a sad experience, but I felt great comfort… And eventually I was ok. Jesus did take care of me, and looking back, I think He took care of me in a deeper way than I expected… Because I felt His presence when I was feeling most alone.
I’ve learned over the years that my motivation for going beyond my limits is often based in fear, and I find that in those times, Jesus doesn’t automatically give me the strength to fight through. I think He has wanted me to experience the grace to rest, the grace to know that the plates will keep spinning if I’m not spinning them, that my friends will understand and forgive me when I cancel last minute, and that I’m loved even when I do nothing. Now, I still feel His grace when I fight my limits, but it’s even better when I give myself a permission slip to take a break. When I fight my limits, I come home saying to Him, “Darn, I did it again. I fought when I didn’t need to. I saw the ‘yellow flag’ but kept going. I want to be wiser!” I didn’t know deep grace in my life until I decided to rest in my circumstances, to stop fighting them. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It takes some time to figure out what the limits are, and you may overextend yourself multiple times like me, but it will be okay. There’s grace for that too. I thought that fighting to keep up with my healthy self meant that I was strong, but I’ve learned that I’m strongest when I’m wise with my body. True strength is doing what you can do, and letting go of the rest.