Limits

Part of success is learning where there are real limits, and where we perceive limits that don’t really exist. Clearly there are real limits to what we can do; there is also self-delusion. That’s where I get stuck. “I can’t do it” is too great an excuse to give up without evidence to the contrary.

“I don’t have time,” is one of my pet delusions. A teacher’s job is never done. Even in the summer, there’s professional development, planning, reading…

Time is a real limit, but not as much as I would like to think. If I tell myself that I don’t have time to do something – write a book, for instance – what I’m more likely saying is that I’m not willing to commit the time it will take. Most likely I won’t live to be 150 — but I can do a lot in the 24 hours a day I have. All I need to do is look at a list of successful people to see that plenty of people accomplish more in less time than I have. Time is controllable.

“Bad knee,” gets me out of a number of things I don’t want to do. Physically, my knees are my weakest link.

In the fall, my right knee became so painful that walking was nearly impossible. I limped around for weeks before seeing a doctor, not because I’m stoic, but because I assumed that he would tell me what he always tells me: elevate it, ice it, take diclofenac, and be patient. I already know that I have arthritis. Why pay to hear advice I already know?

The tipping point came the weekend before Christmas. Saturday morning, I went to the mall to shop for presents. Since approximately 96% of all people are procrastinators, about 765,000 people were doing the same thing. After I had walked from one end to the other, my knee was so painful that I didn’t think I’d make it to the car. Sternly, I told myself: you’re not able to walk like normal people, so plan accordingly. You’re the one they make ramps and elevators for, the one everybody has to wait for. Find a park bench and wait while everyone else gets things done.

In truth, I had damaged more than my knees; I had begun to see myself as less capable. I had been a daily walker, in pretty good shape. In six months, I lost it all. During this time, my self-image kept pace with my knee. I began to think, This is what it’s like to be disabled. Get used to it.

When my torn meniscus was finally diagnosed and treated, months of limping and sitting around had gone by. By the time I went to my first physical therapy appointment, my leg muscles were jello. After eighteen sessions with a therapist, I still can’t straighten my leg, but I can walk.

Physical therapy taught me that a lot of the limits are in my own mind. I’m able to do the things I want to do – go to the mall, climb stairs, stand in a slow check-out line without pain. At this point I can walk a mile, maybe two, and there is no reason not to. That will happen. The only limits I have were there before. Until medical science figures out how to reverse arthritis, I’m not going to be running any marathons.

Yes, I know that people with arthritis run marathons. Even people with no legs do marathons. If I committed myself entirely to that goal, I would find some way to do it – run through the pain, drag myself out to the track every day, keep pushing through set-backs. But I don’t want to run a marathon. All I want to do is go shopping, climb stairs, walk around the park a few times. I don’t have to give up the things I enjoy doing.

My writing fell by the wayside without any pain or limping. I barely noticed that I’d stopped working on my projects. Writer’s block, I decided. Then I decided that maybe my writing ability had disappeared. I felt no joy in writing. Was I ever talented? Had it been a delusion all along? Maybe I was just facing reality for the first time. Maybe talent, like knees, gets arthritic.

But an arthritic brain wasn’t why I stopped. When I look back over the last two years – the same years when my knees have made me limp more and more – it has nothing to do with my brain. It has to do with time and stress. I’ve had impossible schedules, increased responsibilities, more than I can get done in the time I have. I’ve felt overwhelmed, resentful, tired. All my mental energy has been poured into lesson planning, all my time into grading student writing. With all that going on, there is neither time nor energy for writing.

But that can change. I think I have a more reasonable schedule this coming year, and now that my knee is functioning again, it’s not a drain on my energy every day.

And I have a choice about much of what I spend time on. There will always be piles of paper to grade. I can grade it all, grade some of it, grade none of it. I can mark every mistake in red ink, write comments, conference with students, do peer editing – the most time-consuming option is not always the best. Do students look at those marked errors, do they read those comments? A few do, but most ball the paper up and toss it in the trash. Teaching better doesn’t have to take more time than teaching badly.

What do I want to accomplish? That’s the only question I need to ask myself. As long as I believe that I don’t have the time or the ability, I won’t write. I’ve come to realize that those limits are not real. Talent isn’t like cartilage, which doesn’t grow back.

But it does require time. Really wanting to do something is not enough. Having a goal is not enough. The people who accomplish their goals are the ones who stop making excuses and put in the hours.

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”- Winston Churchill

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