All about Limits
There’s a great quote from Albert Einstein which says that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits. Its a great 1 liner, but more than that, there’s a real wisdom behind the words because it admits two things: that everything (and everyone) has limits - but more than that, that perhaps part of genius - or real wisdom - is being able to recognise these limits.
Years ago I had a conversation with someone about exactly this. We’d been talking for a while, and suddenly a thought struck me. The problem, I explained, was that this person was trying to live life like superman - pushing themselves and carrying expectations of themselves as though there were no limits to what they could or should be able to achieve. ‘What you need to recognise’ I said ‘Is that you are not a super person. You are ‘just’ a normal human being.’ Since then I’ve had pretty much the same conversation with lots of people and they all react in the same way. They are frustrated by the concept of being ‘just’ human, and they want to push the limits and achieve more!
God facing human limitations
One of the most amazing things about the New Testament story of Jesus is the thing that would have been the greatest of challenges to the jewish people around at the same time as him - the fact that Jesus was God, in a human body. The Jews were expecting a Messiah - a king, descended from David’s line, but they were not expecting this. And yet Jesus was more than just a human king - he was God. In Jesus, God ‘came as a human’ (1 Timothy 3:16 CEV).
What this means is that we see God, all mighty, all powerful, all above, experiencing the limitations of a human body. And experience them Jesus did. He became tired (eg Mark 4:38), emotional (John 11:35), thirsty (John 19:28), hungry (Matthew 21:18) and ultimately he experienced death. What is perhaps surprising is that Jesus had to submit to these very human needs. He wasn’t able to overcome them, even though he had only a short time to fulfil his mission. We might have expected Jesus, with only a few years to teach, heal and correct all the misunderstood teachings that he saw around him, might have blown those human limitations away. But even God had limitations when existing in a human body. In fact we read that even when surrounded by needs, ‘ As often as possible, Jesus withdrew to out of the way places to pray.’ (Luke 5:16 The Msg).
Reaching your limits
Have you ever reached your own limits? One of my friends recently had to drop out of a marathon. She’d trained so hard, but on the day she just didn’t feel 100% She was gutted to have to stop but said ‘I knew I just couldn’t go on.’
As humans we all have physical limits. If you’ve trained up for a marathon those will likely be a lot higher than most of ours, but they will still exist. Physical limits vary. Some us of are more prone to physical difficulties than others due to illness, health problems or things which are physically very draining like chronic pain. Some people show the impact of things like stress very quickly with physical symptoms - headaches,digestive problems or high blood pressure. Others may not notice the impact in the short term, but start to struggle with the longer term impact of pushing their body too hard - things like type two diabetes, or problems with joints etc.
Of course our human limitations are not just physical. We are created as emotional beings, and our emotions, as well as playing a very necessary role in how we interact with and comprehend the world around us, place very real influences on the way we respond. Jesus wasn’t immune to this. Apart from the various times we see him get angry &frustrated (Mark 3:5, Matthew 17:17, John 2v15-16), we know that he was affected by human emotions like grief. In Matthew 14, Jesus hears about the death of John the baptist and seems greatly affected by it. We read that he ‘crossed lake Galilee to go to some place where he could be alone.’ (Matthew 14:13 CEV). Even Jesus found some times when his emotions were overwhelming, and he had to withdraw in order to deal with them.
Emotional limits can be harder to recognise than physical ones but they are just as real, and they have just as great an impact on us.
It would be nice if all the things that triggered our emotions were within our control. However, sometimes life can throw things at us that leave us battered by emotions which seem to push us beyond our limits.
September 10th is world suicide prevention day. Suicide may be something you think of as an extreme act, something unlikely to ever touch your life, but actually suicidal feelings or impulses are a lot more common than we usually think. In fact the majority of normal, health, happy people have at some stage experienced thoughts of ending their life. For most of us these are fleeting thoughts, but for some they become more regular or troublesome. For people who are fighting emotional illnesses like depression, thoughts of suicide can become a regular thing they have to deal with. Tragically, ever day thousands of people across the world lose their life to suicide, because these thoughts become overwhelmingly, or because impulsively they act on them and take their own life. More people die every year through suicide than are killed through wars and homicide combined - worldwide it works out that 1 person dies every 40 seconds due to this cause. And for every person that dies around 20 more make attempts on their own life.
What do suicidal feelings have to do with reaching your limits?
Research into suicide reveals how closely it is linked with the experience of difficult emotion, or situations which feel overwhelming. Suicidal feelings are what happens when our brains feel trapped - when we feel like there is no way out of the situation we face, be that the suffocating weight of depression, the unrelenting pressure of debt or the haunting desire of alcoholism or other addictions. They are a sign that we have reached or exceeded our limits and that we need help. They are much more normal than we like to think, and it is essential that we discuss them.
Suicidal thoughts and the Bible
We can get an idea of how common suicidal feelings are by looking in the bible. Start out with the story of Elijah in 1 kings 19. He was coming down from a great triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (a great story well worth a read in 1 kings 18!). You might think he’d have been on a high, but he was all too human. A message from Jezebel threatening his life suddenly triggered something in him: he was beyond his limit. He ran for his life, and ended up sitting under a bush praying that God might take his life. God’s actions here are very interesting. There is no condemnation, no guilt trip, no ‘what do you think you are doing when I just helped you pull off an amazing miracle.’, no lecture. Instead God sends an angel who encourages him to sleep and eat to rebuild his strength: maybe more of his collapse was physical than he realised. Then God appears to him - this time not in dramatic stressful situations, but in a moment of calm. God reminds him what he is doing and why - and revived, he is able to carry on.
Another very interesting example is in the new testament. In Philippians 1 Paul is in prison, and is experiencing things which have pushed him well beyond his limits. He also knows he will probably be killed. An excerpt from Phil1:21-25 offer a fascinating insight into the mental struggle his situation was producing. Tellingly, he admits ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ,’ admitting that this is ‘better by far’ than the life he is experiencing at that point (v23). In his words he is ‘torn between the two’ (life and death). These words, admitting a yearning to go on to eternal life and end his torment on earth will ring with many Christians who have struggled with suicidal thoughts and feelings. Kay Warren, speaking at the leadership conference in London earlier this year talked of how hard it was when her son, who tragically did lose his life to suicide, talked on when he asked her ‘why can’t I just go to heaven now?’ In the end Paul’s decision ‘to remain’ stems not from himself but from the people he teaches and leads (v24 ‘it is more necessary for you that I remain’). Often it is other people who bring us through when life hangs in the balance.
What if you are at breaking point?
It is, unfortunately, common to hear people say that if someone is suicidal there is nothing you can do to help them or to stop them. It is true that ultimately a person’s fate lies in their own hands. However there are things that can be done to help someone feeling suicidal - whether that is you or someone you care about. And it is vital that we do help them: research shows that most people who struggle with suicidal thoughts but manage to get through them feel better in the future and are glad they did not go through with them.
The human brain is profoundly affected by intense emotions
The first important thing to appreciate is just how affected the human brain is by the kind of emotions people who are feeling suicidal are experiencing. In times of intense emotion your brain works on a kind of ‘shutdown’ level - the world becomes very narrow and you see it through tunnel vision. Although this can help to simplify your world and protect you from being overwhelmed, it has side effects which can be incredibly unhelpful. The main one is that your ability to problem solve is drastically reduced. Studies asking people to suggest strategies for tackling various logic problems found that experiencing emotions like sadness have a huge impact on our ability to suggest things we might try to solve a problem. This means that when you are feeling emotions like grief, sadness or depression even simple problems or challenges can feel overwhelming and trigger suicidal thoughts. The message is that things are very often just not as bad as they feel. Emotions are not truth and when all feels hopeless it very often isn’t.
Isolation helps us find space to think but leaves us desperately vulnerable
The second very unhelpful impact this emotional ‘tunnel vision’ has is that it pushes us away from other people. We, like Jesus when he heard of John the baptist’s death, feel an instinct to isolate ourselves and be on our own. This may help us find space to process feelings, but it also means that at a time when our own ability to sort out the things we are facing is likely to be reduced, we are less likely to be around the people who would most want to help us. Isolation is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide, and anyone who has struggled long term with emotional ill-health will be able to share about the pain of the loneliness it can bring with it.
What to do if you know someone who is beyond their limits and experiencing suicidal thoughts/feelings
All this means there are three main things to do if you, or someone you care about, are struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings.
(1) Accept them
The most important thing to do with suicidal feelings is to accept they are there and recognise them for what they are: a sign that you are at or beyond your limits. Do not be ashamed by this. They are a sign that you are human so you are in good company. Find someone you can talk to about how you are feeling. If you are not already in contact wit your GP, this is a sign that you need to talk to him/her about the pressure you are under, and the impact this is having on you. Do not ignore suicidal feelings, hope they go away, or feel guilt for having them.
If someone you know talks to you about suicidal feelings do not panic. They are a sign of powerful emotions and they need to be listened to, but admitting they and/or talking about them does not make anyone more likely to act on them. Your instinct may be to run away but try not to. Help them instead, to break out of the isolation that they may be in emotionally. Support them to find help and talk to someone experienced and skilled in helping people with emotional health problems. If you need ideas or resources search the mind and soul website, or contact some of the links at the end of this article.
(2) Break down problems and challenges into manageable chunks
If you are feeling overwhelmed by challenges and problems, try not to be intimidated by them. Get a friend to help you break them down into more manageable stages. For example, if you need to go and see your GP, but doing this feels totally impossible, think about it stage by stage. Stage one might be to look up the phone number. Nothing more: just look it up then write it down. Stage two might be to think about when to call and make a plan: perhaps you need to call first thing one morning so you can get an appointment. Or perhaps you decide to call at a time when the surgery is less busy so you can explain your situation to the receptionist. Maybe you want to book an appointment for a time in the future. Make a plan and note down when you are going to call. Stage three might be to think about what you are going to say, Maybe even write it down so you can just read it when you call. By the time you get to stage four: phoning, you will already have done a lot of the difficult stuff meaning you can focus just on that one thing.
Some problems, decisions or challenges are bigger than making a phone call or appointment. If you are facing these then remember that they can feel more overwhelming than they are if they are linked to a lot of emotion like anxiety or sadness. This is most likely to affect your ability to think of different ideas about what you might be able to do. Get a friend to help you sit down and brainstorm possible solutions. Remember the rules of brainstorming state that at this stage you are not allowed to eliminate any, no matter how silly, impractical or unwise! Write them all down and try to be honest. Then you can take each option one at a time and write down the pros and cons. Again don’t try to do this all at once as it is likely to be hard work. Take it one stage at a time. Once you have all the pros and cons of each option you will be in a position to start to think about which one is the option you want to go with. Then get the same friend to help you to think about the stages involved in moving forward. Again, get help, and take it one stage at a time.
Remember that emotional limits often have more physical stuff going on than we realise. If you are suddenly feeling overwhelmed by something ask yourself if you are tired, hungry or (esp women!) more hormonal than usual. Recognise the impact these things might have on you and work on those before you try to problem solve. Remember Elijah, crawling under his tree and wanting to die. He felt a lot better after some good sleep and food. So might you. Remember that addressing these issues might require some action too: eg to talk to your GP about sleep problems. In each case take it slow and one step at a time.
(3) Start to reconnect
By far the hardest thing to do when you are feeling beyond your limits is to reach out to other people. It may go beyond every instinct you have. But do reach out and make some connections. It needn’t be too heavy at first. Try to meet someone understanding for coffee, or offer to help someone take their dog for a walk. It needn’t be long: half an hour is enough for a first move. If going out feels too hard start with something easier - try texting someone or pick up the phone. You might find it helps to do something which doesn’t place too much pressure on you to chat - that’s why walking dogs is often a good thing to choose! Or why not ‘watch’ a program together and agree to text whilst watching.Small steps will help you to connect with other people and even these little things will help you to feel less isolated.
If you are friends with someone who struggles with depression or suicidal feelings, remember that it is all about little steps to help them keep connected. Sending the odd text now and again to let them know you are thinking of them can make a huge difference. Could you find a time/place where they feel able to meet up? Remember that your job here is not to be an amateur therapist. In fact the most helpful thing you can do might be to talk about other things. And remember that it may feel very small to you: ‘only’ a quick coffee or ‘just’ a few texts, but to them it might mean a lot more.
(4) Get some help
When you’re feeling overwhelmed it feels like the world really is as bad as your emotions tell you it is. But the chances are that things are not as impossible as they feel. You need some help to deal with the way you are feeling. Recognise your feelings as the warning that they are, that you are beyond your limits. Start by talking to your GP about how you are feeling.
As well as finding some skilled help for you, try to find someone who can hold hope for you. When you are fighting suicidal thoughts, the idea that your future could hold anything positive may be incredibly hard to hold on to. But the idea that someone else believes in good things for your future is often much easier. Find someone who can be your ‘hope holder’ and on dark days their hope for you might be what gets you through.
God is beyond our limits
Very often people feeling pushed to the limit find that their faith can put extra pressure on them rather than lessen it. Somehow we feel the pressure to achieve the impossible, or wrestle with guilt about not being grateful for all God has given us. None of this comes from God. We need to remember how God responded to an Elijah who was out of human strength, full of compassion and totally without condemnation, and try to mirror that in how we treat ourselves in the tough times. We need to learn how to care for ourselves as well as for other people. We need to recognise that we are human, and that in that we are in good company.
Perhaps the most important thing for us to recognise when faced with our own limits is that our strength and our promise for the future stems, not from within ourselves, but from God, who is without limits. Even in the most seemingly hopeless situations, ‘what is impossible with man is possible with God’ (Luke 18:27). God is not limited by our limitations but in fact works through them. Unlike us, God is not surprised by our limits: he has them covered. In fact, find hope in the fact that in our weakness, Gods power is at its strongest (2 Cor 12:9).
If you need to find more help and support there are many articles about suicide on the Mind and Soul website. Find a list here.
For more about World Suicide Prevention Day click here.
If you need someone to talk to or to pray for you, Premier lifeline is open 9am-midnight every day of the year. Call 0300 111 0101.
The Samaritans are also available 24 hrs a day every day of the year. Call 08457 90 90 90, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out http://www.samaritans.org/branches to find your local branch.
Further resources …