Being human

When I was a student one of our professors had a combination of words that he frequently used to describe human limitations: “sin, ignorance, finitude and lethargy.” We are imperfect and his point is that to be human is to have limitations that are a part of our nature. He was an excellent teacher and I learned a lot from him, but I also resisted putting those particular concepts in the same category. Certainly sin is a product of human willfulness. Can’t we choose not to sin - or at least to sin less? Is ignorance a perpetual condition or can it be overcome through study and careful learning? Finitude seems to be a fixed reality. There is nothing we can do about it. And lethargy seems to be something that is within our power to overcome. I’ve never considered myself to be a slow or lazy person. I may not always do the right thing, but laziness isn’t one of the qualities that marks my life.

Older now, I think that I understand the concepts better.

We all sin, not only through our actions, but also through our inactions. We leave undone things that we ought to have done. No one is capable of doing all the good that this world requires. My understanding of the concept of original sin has evolved over the years. I have tried throughout my life to be a good person, but that doesn’t mean that others have not suffered because of my decisions and actions. Some of the benefits of my life have come at the expense of others - far less through intentional actions than through my inability to share and my inability to see the long range consequences of my decisions. To be human is to be imperfect in our understanding and vision. That imperfection means that we make choices that are not always in the best interests of others.

A lifetime of study has taught me how much I do not know. When I was younger I thought I knew how to conduct a literature review, test my ideas against those of others and understand what original concepts I might have to offer. Now, in the age of the Internet, I have discovered that I never can truly cover any field of information. Each discovery leads to the knowledge of how much I do not understand. I used to think that the perception of losing intellectual capacity as one aged was the product of diminishing memory. Quite the contrary - at least so far in my experience - I discover that there is so much more to be learned that what I do understand is a small fraction of what could be known. It is not that my ignorance is growing, rather my perception of how much I do not understand is gaining perspective.

And lethargy is less a product of willful sluggishness than a realization of the limits of human strength. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours cutting wood. It is something that I’ve often done in my life. But I accomplished a bit less than I used to be able to accomplish in that amount of time. I had to stop to catch my breath a bit more often. I did less work than I could do when I was younger. I’m certainly not an invalid, but I’m not superman, either. There are limits to what I can do.

I am aware of the persistent reality of lethargy in the work that I do. I have always been willing to put in the hours at my job. I arrive early and stay late. But I have had to learn that there is always more that can be done in the ministry. I am constantly leaving tasks undone, not because I don’t want to do them, but because there are only so many hours in the day.

Finitude. We all share that reality.

These factors-the real limits of human nature are especially interesting when considering the Christian notion of incarnation. We believe that Jesus became fully human. Which, contrary to some theological statements, means that he experienced human limitations. Even though we understand Jesus to be fully God, during his human life he was not capable to doing everything. He needed to sleep. He needed moments of privacy. He couldn’t be everything to everyone. There were conversations left unfinished, people whose needs were not met. As shocking as it is to read in three of the gospels that Jesus said to his disciples, “you will always have the poor among you.” The human presence of the messiah did not solve all of the problems of human suffering. Jesus experienced the finitude of the human condition.

I spend quite a bit of time with people who are deeply aware of their own finitude because disease has advanced to the point that they cannot escape the knowledge of their coming death. Knowing the their time in this life is short focus them to reevaluate their priorities and confess that there are limits to what they can do. With advancing illness there also is a decreased stamina and lessoned ability to accomplish tasks. It is frustrating to many who are nearing the end of their life that the time is so short and the things they wish to accomplish are larger than the time they have been granted.

Maybe one of the realities of human existence is the ability to imagine that we might do more than we are able. We can dream bigger than we can produce.

There is a story that our people have been telling for many centuries that Moses, upon reaching the end of his life, tried to bargain with God for more time, a request that was denied. I wonder if Jesus, in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked God for a few more years, a few more weeks, a few more days so that he could teach a bit more, heal a few more people, and reach more.

This human condition is far from perfect and we have to make the best of it that we can. Part of the process for all of us is being honest with the reality of our limitations.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!