While many have analyzed the self-centered and even narcissistic tendencies of recent Western societies and especially in America,1 I would like to consider briefly one consequence, freshly revealed in the COVID crisis, that deserves our close attention. In the modern version of the American dream, we are constantly tempted to live in denial of the fact that we are finite creatures. That denial, that pursuit of endless accomplishment, produces self-destructive exhaustion, overcommitment, and self-absorption. Facing a global pandemic gives us a fresh opportunity to be reminded that our finitude is good, to pursue a healthier relationship with God, others, and even the earth.2 Let me explain.
“Finitude” sounds like an intimidating technical or even philosophical word. We often assume that it relates specifically to death, but it doesn’t. Even before Adam and Eve sinned, they were always finite creatures. As the Cambridge Dictionary states, finitude is “the state of having a limit or end.”4 I would add that one of the theological roots feeding so much of our hurry is that we largely fail to appreciate the good of our finitude. We have been pushing against our creaturely limits in ways that actually hurt us. Although we often interact with loads of people, many of us have discovered we don’t actually have anyone we consider a close friend. We continually run from one thing to the next because we find sitting in silence deeply unnerves us. The lockdowns have revealed just how lonely many of us are and just how sad we have become. Denying our finitude has helped create this unhealthy situation.
And so, for many people, the restrictions from COVID that forced us to slow down came as a shock. For some, this was immediately welcomed as a gift—like receiving an unexpected snow day when you were a kid in school. For others, however, it brought the challenge of becoming comfortable with a slower pace of life, learning to be okay with going fewer places and getting fewer things done. Before this crisis, we often said we needed to slow down, but now that we actually can, we find it surprisingly difficult. The added silence and reduction of obligations have discomforted many people, adding stress and boredom. Shouldn’t every minute be spent doing something? We have equated being busy with that sacred word, “productive.” This failure to be busy has brought many of us a sense of self-condemnation, revealing just how tightly we had unconsciously tied our sense of worth to productivity—or, more accurately, to busyness.
We can and should use COVID as an unexpected opportunity to acknowledge and even embrace our limits as a healthy and good aspect of being truly and faithfully human. COVID has forced us to slow down. Now we can step back and ask afresh,
Do I need to be doing all of those things? In what ways have my over-commitments, even to good causes, been detrimental to my soul and my relationships to God, to others, and to the earth? Have we even started catechizing our children to see this inhumane pace of life—which belittles rest, quiet, mutual dependence, and overall healthy limits—as normative?
God created us in four relationships: with him, our neighbors, the earth, and even with ourselves.5 In each of these relationships, we are always finite creatures. True human flourishing, therefore, can only happen within the matrix of our finitude and never outside it. God’s goal for us is not to become superhuman but to be fully human. And part of that is to understand our dependence upon God, others, and the earth. COVID reminds us that even our relationship to creation cannot be ignored without serious consequences. It is an opportunity for us to think afresh about the good of our limitations, of the goodness in being dependent creatures.
Maybe God doesn’t expect us to get so much done every day. Maybe God doesn’t want our kids to participate in endless organized activities or our teenagers to work from 7:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. every day. Maybe God is okay that I am not the strongest, brightest, or most beautiful person. Maybe God made me to be me, a particular, limited, joyful, dependent human creature. My task before God, others, and the creation is not to do everything but simply to be faithful. Learning to be faithful often requires that we say “no,” that we do less, that we relearn humane rhythms and expectations. Resetting our expectations to a more godly, patient focus can teach us a more faithful walk in which we can also point the watching world to a good Creator who loves us enough to let us be what we are: finite creatures. O Lord, teach us what we do not see.