Gracious Limits

This is a Guest Post by Carol Wilson, the Founder and Transformative Conversation Guide for Table Grace which seeks to create space for life-giving, transformational conversations, story-sharing, and resourcing for individuals, families, small groups, congregations, and communities. For more information, contact CarolWilsonTableGrace@gmail.com.

Gracious Limits by Carol Wilson[1]Steve Hartman recently shared the story of 89-year-old Allen McCloskey in an On the Road segment for CBS News. Mr. McCloskey’s neighbors described him as a “special guy” who is “out there to help everybody.” Steve Hartman said he would make a great candidate for kindest American. 

In the segment Mr. McCloskey was surprised by his hometown of Galveston, Indiana with a dinner in his honor and the presentation of the Guinness World Record for longest career as a gravedigger as he is now in his 71st year.  He doesn’t want to retire because he wants to make sure that the graves are dug carefully with square corners and with care for the persons affected by his work.  In addition, Mr. McCloskey is known for doing thousands of odd jobs across the years and is especially known for never sending a bill.  When Steve Hartman asked him about this, he just laughed.  Steve Hartman described Mr. McCloskey as unassuming in persona and profession and yet a bold beacon for anyone in search of meaning.  One of his neighbors said it best: “Allen has figured out what life is about.  It’s not the money that makes him happy. I truly believe Allen has figured out where enough is at. He’s found enough.”

In a course on Cultural Wayfinding, we discussed the concept of internalized capitalism.  It’s the shaping of our way of being by the priorities of capitalism and is experienced as a sense of urgency, scarcity, and never being enough. In my small group, we discussed it as the air that we breathe that leaves us feeling exhausted, unsettled, and always pushing through life.  Our course members are seeking to identify the cultural systems that shape us so that we can name them, see them, feel them, and then make conscious choices about how we participate in them.

Long ago I was introduced by a professor to gracious limits, a phrase I have carried and shared with others across the years.  When I first heard this concept it was contrasted with complete freedom, which is often seen as the desire of the human heart.  Yet, this professor suggested, complete freedom is chaos.  Without limits, we don’t know what is enough, where we are safe, where to stop, and how to recognize consequences for going too far.  Gracious limits, by contrast, let us know the playing field, the boundaries that give us security to know that within the recognized limits we can move freely and without worry or anxiety.

Gracious limits is an image I’ve often shared with persons who were entering into a role of supervision or with parents who were seeking to guide their children.  Until our conversation on internalized capitalism, I had never applied it to the limits and grace we give to ourselves to thrive. It was an aha moment to recognize that naming the limits of my time, ability, and energy isn’t being less than I “should” be.  Taking time to breathe, to rest, to reflect, to replenish is what gives all of us the space we need to be able to maintain our sense of self, our freedom to make choices, and to reduce the anxiety that tends to generate a desire for control over our life circumstances or over the lives of others.

Internalized capitalism has led me to believe that our worth comes from productivity, our importance comes from busyness, and that even our personal experiences are defined in terms of limited resources. How fascinating, then, to meet Mr. McCloskey who has “found enough.” Here is a man giving generously to his community, who is beloved and generating good will, who chooses to continue his work because of its value to him and to others and who is known for his kindness. He moves slowly, he speaks deliberately, he is unassuming in his expectations of others.  This life he models is one of generativity, of breathing into the world a spirit that leads to compassion and connection. Mr. McCloskey knows what is his to do and the gifts he has to offer.  There is a grace in him that seems to guide his choices and shape his interactions. In stepping out of urgency and lack, he has found ways to give generously and joyfully. He embodies what gracious limits look like, not restrictive, but freeing to receive and share, to work and rest, to care and receive care. 

As Steve Hartman closed his segment over pictures of Mr. McCloskey receiving hugs and sharing laughter with his community, he offered this summary: “Strange thing about finding enough, you often end up with more than enough.”  Gracious limits set us on the path to the freedom of enough and recognizing what really matters, a gift to ourselves, our community, and all creation.

Carol Wilson

Table Grace

August 10, 2023

Reflection Prompts:

  • Share how you experience the internalization of capitalism in your daily life. Notice the “shoulds” that you carry with you and the stories and drivers behind them.
  • Share a time when you experienced rest or a sense of enough. What did that feel like in your body? What did it sound like in your way of speaking?
  • What is one step you can take that moves you toward the freedom of enough and recognizing what really matters?

[1] “Local Hero”, On the Road with Steve Hartman, CBS News Sunday Morning, August 6, 2023.

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