Limitations, Delicacy, and Beauty
A wise man once said that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecc 3:1-2 NIV). The entire concept of “limitation” is categorically anathema to our culture. We would like to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want. In this podcast, Nathan and Cameron ponder whether embracing the frailty and limitations of our time and abilities can actually give us a deeper sense of beauty and appreciation for the present moment. There are certain delights that are accessible to us only if we recognize them as delicate, and there is a certain hope that we have by acknowledging that future beauty is not limited by our limitations.
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Nathan R.: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host, Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: And I'm your co-host, Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, something that I've been thinking about over the last several weeks, maybe even months, and just picking up bits and pieces and fragments of ideas and thoughts that I've been hearing around has to do with the intersection between limitations, fragility and beauty.
Cameron McAllister: That sounds uplifting.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh yeah, it's really exciting. But actually I want to make a case that it is and get you to help me flesh this out a little bit. In the context of living in a time where you see a lot of inspirational stuff, a lot of self-actualization. If you just have the right mindset, you can make something of yourself.
Everybody hears that sort of thing. I was reflecting on a story my brother was telling me about being at a community basketball league and him making a comment, "I'll never play in the NBA." And he's a good basketball player. But yeah, I mean the chances are.
One of the fathers of one of the kids there got in his face and said, "I don't want my son around this type of negativity. He can be anything he wants to be." And my brother he thought in the back of his mind, "Yeah, well, if he grows 18 inches and can dunk more than donuts, maybe."
This kid just wasn't...Probably statistically he is. But living in a culture where we don't want to think about the limitations that we have. The reason I want to push into this is because, is it possible that not embracing the limitations that we have has an impact on our ability to live in the present and to appreciate things as beautiful in the moment?
And so maybe just a silly example, sort of the idea of a flower, it's beautiful in a sense but part of its beauty is knowing that it's temporal. That there is a fragility to it, that it's not long lasting. I mean, there's something that seems not as beautiful to us as a plastic flower for example because we know that the fullness of the flower isn't there.
But in order for the fullness of the flower to be there, there has to be a finality and a timeline.
Cameron McAllister: The permanence would be artificial and defect.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So what then if we flip that around and think about what it means to be human and what it means to be a person. If you walk down the self-help aisles, plural actually, at most bookstores, where are the conversations that are happening about not in a negative way, but embracing the limitations of what it means to be human and being content with that and recognizing that as a beautiful thing? Have you seen any example? Does anything pop into your mind of good conversations around that?
Cameron McAllister: There's an immense wealth of insight in what you said there. I guess we'll break it down a little bit. It does seem to me that what you're identifying, this ephemeral nature of all beauty, is a structural feature of beauty in the world. And I think all of us know that.
The flower example's great. We also know that if we take the big view of human life, that all human life has an expiration date, even though we try to push that to the back of our minds. Setting that aside, there's a tension that shows up here and you just mentioned it.
On the one hand, most of us instinctively, whether we state it in philosophical or technical terms like I just said or not, recognize that the world is transient, it's temporal and that's a structural feature of all beauty as well. All the beautiful stuff will end and there's a certain point you can see to it.
But on the other hand, we have on a popular level a kind of naive, I would say, sentimental view of beauty as this kind of manicured aspect of reality that's safeguarded from all of the weapons of time.
Nathan Rittenhouse: A desire for a garden you might say.
Cameron McAllister: Wonder where we can find a reference to that. But it's interesting actually, that's written into the very fabric of the American imagination. Walt Disney, when you read about some of the early stories of when he was first creating the theme park, and of course you're not going to find a more typical example of kind of the American creative than Walt Disney.
But as he was designing the park, it was very, very important to him that he would try to screen out all of the negative limiting features of reality. He wanted this to be a fantasy world where you are safe and where that kind of decay doesn't enter in. Like John Jeremiah Sullivan when he went to Disney world because he's a miserable little guy like us who is always inside his head and thinking about it.
What did he call it? Manicured emptiness. When you're waiting in line the way it's all dressed up. It's funny because this is fresh on my mind because I'm working on a book right now and I draw attention to this in one section. We'll see if it survives the editor's eyes. But there's an attraction in Disney World I think it's called, if I'm not remembering correctly, we can supply some corrections.
But the basic idea I think it's called “future land.” It's never been a success, ever. In Google articles and they'll say the problem of future land or something because if you actually create some future land, then you've necessarily, just bear with me, here brought in limitation because now you've got to fix sort of picture of the future.
And the American mindset is always future oriented. They always want to go to the next thing. Anything that looks like a destination looks boring, looks frozen. You've got to stop the wheels at that point.
Nathan Rittenhouse: We'd rather be on our way some place than at that place.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly. We'd rather be on the way. This is a poster I've seen and I've actually seen this framed on a wall of a family member, it's the journey, not the destination. But also Americans can't really imagine a future destination. That's a real limitation in the American imagination because we always want the next thing.
And so in a sense, the visceral response to go back to that dad at that basketball game, makes a lot of sense to me because to hear that is just so jarring. If in your head you've always thought, no, I want to be limitless. We even have a movie that came out not long ago called “Limitless.” We're so fascinated by that idea and yet we all know we're not all going to be professional basketball players.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I don't know if this is true, I have to look this up again talking about stuff we have no idea. But is it true that technically nobody's died in Disney World? That they always whisk them out them outside of the property to pronounce them dead sort of thing. There's that even the manicuring of the concept of-
Cameron M.: Keep it off stage.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. What I'm saying about that is even if we take this idea then to beauty and limitations and fragility to aging, I'm at the ripe old age of my early thirties here, it does seem that as I get older everything seems more fragile. Or maybe fragile isn't the right word. Maybe delicate is the word that I'm looking for.
You've lived through this, you've experienced tragedies in your life and your family's sudden deaths. Just stuff that has gotten catastrophically wrong that you didn't foresee coming. I think you can go two ways with that. You can just sink into despair of like, oh, we're walking on eggshells here.
Or you can say, okay, I'm not in that right now and that makes this moment really beautiful. Actually, my children are healthy right now. What a gift. There's something about knowing the possible other that gives beauty to actual beautiful moments in the present.
Cameron McAllister: What you're saying is so counter cultural. I think you're feeling the tension as you're saying it. Well, first of all, quick correction. The Disney attraction is Tomorrowland by the way. Riffing on what you just said Nathan, two weeks ago I came from a funeral of a family member.
I want to tread carefully here, a lot of social critics draw attention to these features of death these days, even the way we handle it at a funeral. Of course the body is carefully beautified. The goal is to make them look as much as they did and when they were alive as possible.
On the one hand, you go and you look at that and we marvel with the job of embalming and all that. It sounds tough to say this, but that's what's happened. But then you stroll off to the sides and you pull your phones out and you're joking and even at a funeral there's a modern distance from death.
I keep thinking about, the Puritans had a real emphasis on a good death and preparing for a good death. We've talked about this before, I think you've brought it up. There is a real beauty in a family member passing away in the family home with everybody gathered around them singing songs of praise and worship and praying and just surrounded by all the generations.
There's a beauty there and in our fear we've lost that. But also, yeah, simultaneously in those moments you can inhabit the perspective of, oh gosh, this is just so terrible. Look at how horrible and wretched life is. This is all the paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Or you can say, well, no, this charges the world with a meaning and a significance and a precious, delicate kind of beauty because you recognize that it's not lasting in that sense. And of course we're Christian, so we do believe in life everlasting. But we recognize that this world doesn't last.
But that also means that it matters deeply because these moments, because there's that limitation put into them, they are rare. I think even in the world of objects we recognize. You mentioned the flower or think about diamonds or rare and precious works of art. A lot of great works that we recognize as really beautiful are also very, very delicate and fragile and that's part of their beauty.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, or even a lot of the things we consider to be a natural beauty, waterfalls, ravines, cliffs, are all part of a brokenness and a fragmentation in a destructive natural force that creates these things that you would travel to see.
Cameron McAllister: Or what about an athlete? Let's go to even professional athletes. There's a transcendent kind of element to our admiration for wonderful athletes and watching what they do because, hey, we recognize that very few of us can do that. But we also know they can't do that forever.
There is a limitation to that. We know that whoever the athlete is, whether it's Tiger Woods or a great basketball player. I'm going to struggle to find a roster of reliable great athletes here because I'm me and you're you. But Nate, think about the guy. Well, a lot of people will say, oh, it's poetry in motion. But you know that it will come to an end. That eventually the human body ages and you can't be doing that.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Let's say we know that, but it's really fun to watch them. And so what I'm saying is part of, is there an excitement about watching somebody do something well that we know won't last forever? Is a kind of a new idea for me anyway to think about just the...I guess what we're pushing out here and driving for is a realistic embrace of reality that includes a real appreciation for beauty in the present.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, and emphasis on that in the present.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It's not merely a hope for what will be or what ought to be, and those are real categories, but do you have an appreciation for what is in your life today?
Cameron McAllister: Interestingly, the arts, I'm thinking in particular of literature. If it's going to work, it can't afford to overlook that present is true moment. I think a lot of Christian attempts at creating literature in the evangelical world, I think one of the key deficiencies of many of them is that they try to capture the good and the beautiful to the exclusion of the true.
They don't want to major on darkness, but the truth is we do live in a world of limitation. One of the books, and I come back to this one a lot, that I think captures this kind of fragile aspect of beauty even with the shadow of death and limitation and an end kind of hanging over it all is Maryland Robinson's Gilead.
I mean, because the very structure of the book itself it takes the form of a series of letters from an elderly minister who got married a second time. His first wife passed away when she gave birth. In childbirth he lost his wife and the child. Later in life he meets another woman and they get married.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Delilah. Another book you can read if you need the pre-quote one.
Cameron McAllister: And then they have a child but he's diagnosed with a terminal illness. And so his son is very young and will really not know him so this is a series of letters that he's writing for his son when his son gets older so he can...They're broad meditations of life, the church, the family history.
And they really are tremendously beautiful. They're a celebration of this world, creation and the frailty of it and also a celebration of the life to come. It's one of those rare books where it strikes that balance. It captures that wonderful...And there are several moments in there of that ephemeral beauty.
Of course, since he knows he's dying as he's watching his little son play with his wife, all of these scenes take on an immense significance for him. There's one where they're just blowing bubbles in the backyard and he talks about them rising in the air and turning that dragon fly blue as they ascend.
It talks about how wonderful it is where he talks about how a young couple who are just sort of dating are walking along the street and he reaches up to a branch and spills a bunch of water down her forehead and the surprise and shock and just how immensely beautiful and mythic it appears to him.
Well, we see those kinds of scenes every day and this novel helps us to see it through new eyes and I think it captures a lot of what-
Nathan Rittenhouse: That's a great example. Yeah, absolutely. I've seen moments of that too in my life. I remember several years ago one of my grandfathers was passing away and we all knew it. We had a great big family thanksgiving together and then his body was just...So he went and was on the couch taking a nap and all of his great grandsons are driving trucks and tractors over his body while he slept there making a big racket.
He was just content passing away but watching the next generations laugh and sing and drive little trucks over his kneecaps of a deep contentment. And there were medical things that he could've had done, but he told the doctors, "I've had a great life and I just feel so loved here. It's time."
The Gilead, I wasn't thinking about that in reference to this, is such a great connection point there. I'll tell you another story while I'm on the grandfather theme there that has to do with kind of how we think about this and time because, like you said, as Christians we don't want to neglect the future elements of how we sense and feel beauty.
And I don't know what other people's childhoods were like, if your parents let you beat them at games or not. My family did not do that. I always lost as a child because I was smaller. And in fact, my grandpa, my dad's dad always raced me a foot race on my birthday every year and would always beat me, and not because I was a slow kid, but he was just a pretty spry guy.
What was interesting is anytime that he'd beat me running or wrestling or in a game, he would always laugh and say, "I beat you, but time is in your favor." And so I think it was my 13th birthday actually that I was racing him at my birthday party and he slipped a little bit, and he was in his late 60s or something at this point.
He slipped a little bit coming up the hill and I beat him just by a little bit and he thought it was the best thing ever because he can say, "See, I told you time was in your favor." And grandma also said, "Hey, no more running in your dry shoes and you're too old for this foolishness."
But that concept of the older generation delighting in seeing the next generation come along, recognizing time is in your favor. I can beat you now, but you will one day be faster. While at the same time impressing upon me that I lost not because he didn't like me, but because he was faster than me.
There's something about that balance that seems right that encapsulates the reality of the moment while at the same time recognizing that time is not neutral for the Christian. That time is in your favor. It's kind of a great theme of life, so to speak, of whatever stage you're at as a follower of Christ. Time is in your favor.
That the development and the progression will contain decay but there's also an optimism to it that the trajectory of it is actually in your favor. And so knowing that does something about stabilizing the moment that we are in in a very real way. We want to keep that perspective in the back of our mind too as we think about we do have real limitations, but we have limitations as humans that are loved by a God who doesn't.
And that's a game changer as far as, if we think that all the happens within reality we're responsible for, then declaring or recognizing or stating that you have limitations is an existential threat to your future. However, if you think there are causative forces in the universe, which we do, that go beyond what we're capable of, thank God, literally.
Then you can be content with limitations in this present world knowing that time is in our favor because how time plays out isn't entirely dependent on us.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's true. I think what strikes me first of all is remarkable about the story of you and your grandfather there is, first of all, that they didn't let you win as a kid.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But it means more when you do win.
Cameron McAllister: Yes, it means more when you do win. And first of all, you're getting a firsthand acquaintance with just laws of cause and effect and your own limitations, which is I think a helpful lesson to learn. But also the fact that your grandfather was able to celebrate the moment when you did beat him.
Nathan Rittenhouse: He was looking forward to me being faster than him.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's even very counter cultural because I think in many other households people would say, "Oh, now I'm losing it and that's a sign that I'm getting older and may as well throw the towel in here." Just sort of a sinking feeling rather than...But if you've got that broader vision or that more expansive vision-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Because he doesn't think time is in my favor. He thinks time is in his favor also.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly. I think we need to pay careful attention to our attitude about this because if we've got that sense of restless urgency that characterizes the way we lead our lives, the way we do all of our activities.
But also, if we are betraying a mindset where we think that any limitation is an existential threat, that's a good indication that whether we would state this out loud or not, tacitly under the hood we've got the assumption that now the world's really in my hands and it's my responsibility here.
We got to make this happen. We got to do this. Increasingly that's the thought in the broader culture. That's the line of thinking that you'll see on social media that it's all our responsibility. We have to fix and manage all of this. And I'm not in any way suggesting that we should shirk our responsibilities.
We are charged as stewards of this world and we need to be responsible and careful. But if we think that we have to manage all of creation, if we think the world is on our shoulders, that's a burden that we don't need to have and that's the time in your favor aspect, I think.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And there's a sense in which we won't be able to manage well what we don't recognize as beautiful and so part of that is a pace also of this little cliché stuff to smell the roses kind of thing. I don't know how that got started.
But are we so caught up in the idea of I must actualize this into being that we don't take those moments to appreciate just what is that we had nothing to do with and delight in that. I think delight is the right word there. Maybe delighting in the delicacy are the summary words of what I am trying to kind of grapple with you verbally.
Cameron McAllister: Delighting in the delicacy. The other aspect there of beauty that we...I remember I read an article a number of years ago about this writer was saying, I used to think that fresh snow fall was really beautiful and then one day I got locked out of my house in the midst of an ice storm. And fortunately, I was able to finally get in but I learned firsthand that sometimes the benefit of shelter and distance is very beautiful. But also, there's an awesome power to a lot of what we see as beautiful too.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think part of the reason our infatuation of lions and zoos or also venomous snakes and the human fascination in simultaneous fear of kind of that raw dangerous power has a real beauty to it. I mean, your inches and a split second away from real chaos and destruction. There's that part of it too.
Cameron McAllister: When we go down the self-help aisle, so to speak, and when we think in those terms, often what you encounter is I think a pretty superficial and sentimental view of beauty and also of human nature.
It can be harmful too because it can mislead us into thinking that we somehow can push past all limitations. There are certain natural limitations we have. I learned this firsthand when I tried to be a skater.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I didn't know this part of your history.
Cameron McAllister: Oh man, I could walk around with a skateboard and I can dress the part, but when push came to shove, I don't have the athletic prowess to pull it off. We have a guy on our speaking team, Will Tant, former professional surfer. If I tried to do that, now, I could do it in probably a lot of fun.
But if I pushed forward and said, "No, I will crush my limits," that would be an irresponsible behavior. I'd probably seriously injure myself or die in the process. I think we need to recognize that limitations are not in and of themselves an existential threat. I think it's part of just waking up and living responsibly as well.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So go out and make a list of everything you can't do and you'll feel really great about yourself.
Cameron McAllister: But I think one of the beautiful aspects of Christianity is that I like the time in your favor phraseology that your grandfather was using and that you've used in the sense that this world is not all that there is. We also await the life everlasting and a new heavens and a new earth.
But also just to recognize that our value is not tied to our achievements and our capabilities. That existential threat, take it off your shoulders. You can be free of that and then you can actually laugh at your limits and you can celebrate the success of others.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And also be free enough to enjoy the fullness of the gifts that you do have. I mean, think of what your life would be like if you did try to become a professional surfer and gave up on so many of the other things that you're good at.
And so in some ways our limitations focus us in a way that's life giving and that we flourish in of that in the giftings that we have, not in the success that we think we need based off of somebody else's parameters.
Cameron McAllister: I think that's a good note to end on. Hey, thanks for sticking with us through a somewhat eccentric, but we hope, meaningful and fruitful conversation on some of the less discussed aspects of beauty. But you have been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we really think out loud about current events and Christian help
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