Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Donald McCullough
Brazos Press, 203 pages, $18.99
Living with limitations


For 20 years, a friend who is several decades younger than I am has been telling me that she is about to get her life in order. I just smile and wish her luck. Donald McCullough would approve, for his subject is the frustration we all feel when we slam into the limitations that make life anything but orderly. His purpose, as his subtitle (“Learning to Appreciate Life’s Limitations”) hints, is to help us discover the possibilities that lie hidden in life’s limitations.

His approach is profoundly religious -- but not the kind of religious view that ascribes every problem to “God’s will.” Rather, McCullough’s God is an artist who has created a masterpiece, and art is by definition a revelation of the possibilities that lie within limits. An artist always has to decide not only what to include but also what to leave out. Think of Ansel Adams’ stark black and white photographs or Georgia O’Keefe’s magnificently solitary poppy. But, as McCullough reminds us, human beings have resisted limits ever since the serpent promised Adam and Eve that one bite of an apple would make them “like God.”

Chapter by chapter, McCullough explores the limitations of our nature. They include limits to such things as confidence and relationship, moral and spiritual growth, bodily health, knowledge and achievement. Underlying all of them is the ultimate limit imposed by our mortality. Each chapter also examines the gains that accrue when we make our peace with these limits. McCullough doesn’t attempt to minimize the pain they cause us. He simply tells stories -- mostly of his own learning experiences.

The final chapter, “The Limits of Limitations,” goes straight to the heart of Christian belief. He begins with a delightful picture of Lazarus walking out of the tomb. Did it ever occur to you that the first thing the man who had been dead must have done was laugh? It makes sense: In the hands of such a God as we know, all the limits of human existence are reduced to the ridiculous. Even more ridiculous on the face of it is our belief that in Jesus, God accepted human limitations, even the one we fear most -- death -- and “turned it into something redemptive.”

I have already recommended this wise and wonderful book to my young friend who still dreams of controlling her life. It will be my Christmas gift to many of the people I love best. Try it and see for yourself.

Carol Luebering is a freelance writer and a consultant on serving the sick and shut-in.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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