In recent years, I’ve had a couple of significant knee and back injuries. With help from wise people in my life, I’ve been trying to reflect on what invitations, learnings, and graces God may be offering in them. As I’m sitting with all this—at the moment, with my leg propped up, healing from a torn meniscus—I’m beginning to see parallels between my personal experience of injury and the large-scale, societal-level questions about how we human creatures relate to our wonderful but wounded world.
One thing that’s becoming clear to me is that I tend to push myself to the limit. I hear it from almost everyone who knows me well. Whether it’s the demands of my challenging-but-rewarding job, the innumerable side projects I take on, or the aggressive way I throw myself into sport and exercise, I often operate on the outer margins of my time, energy, and mental and physical capacity.
It’s becoming undeniable that we’ve all been pushing Mother Earth well beyond her limits too. The groaning of creation is sending all of us a similar message: We are exceeding the earth’s capacity to regenerate and heal, causing grievous, lasting injuries to our planet.
But why? Why do we push our personal and planetary limits? I know there’s part of me that struggles to accept myself as I am or my circumstances as they are, so I’m always pushing for change and improvement. We do that as societies too: Consider the Western myths around “progress” and “growth,” most of which are rooted in an inability to be satisfied with the abundances and limitations our world offers us. Some of us might even call that original sin.
Not All Bad
Pushing limits, however, isn’t just some aberration of human nature; it’s also one of our best gifts. Our species is inherently curious: Ever since we ventured out from our original home in Africa, we’ve been pioneers and explorers. And as we spread out across the globe, we didn’t just destroy everything we found. We learned new ways to live sustainably in new locations, working within ecological and social limits. Plenty of indigenous peoples have managed to live contentedly in the same place for thousands of years.
I think it’s possible to cultivate a sense of abundance and gratitude in which physical limits—of an individual body or of an ecosystem—become invitations to tremendous creativity and to different kinds of growth: spiritual, moral, intellectual, and relational. I also think we can push limits in ways that honor our innate drive to explore, learn, innovate, and grow, but to do so with care and humility and without causing damage and destruction.
I’m learning to do that better in the arena of exercise and sport, but we can do the same in terms of technology, agriculture, and all of our large-scale efforts. This is one of the most exciting and rewarding human endeavors I can imagine for the decades and centuries to come. When we have gone past sensible limits, though, it’s so important to cultivate self-compassion. As my knee is healing, one of my key spiritual challenges is to avoid beating myself up and adding insult to my injury. God’s invitation to me is to believe and trust that even—perhaps especially—in weakness, vulnerability, and pain, I’m still worthy of love.
Fortunately, as I recover, I’m blessed with family, friends, and colleagues who treat me with the kindness that I often have trouble showing toward myself. Their care also helps me get through those moments when I’m staring into an abyss of fear and despair, thinking I will never get better.
We can direct similar compassion toward the large-scale suffering of Mother Earth. It’s a hard thing to witness and feel and grieve the hurt and harm we’ve collectively wrought. It’s far easier to distract ourselves with Netflix or with fantasies about colonizing Mars. But we can—we must—still love Mother Earth, strip-mined and deforested and polluted as she is. Even with her once elegantly balanced ecosystems now wounded and ailing, she is still our one and only home.
Isn’t this how God loves her, and us? Isn’t this what our Hebrew prophets have shown us: that deep love and deep lament always go hand in hand? Isn’t this the faith we learn from the cross, which teaches us clear-eyed courage and compassionate solidarity in the face of woundedness and suffering? In the course of a human life, injury and illness are basically inevitable. And whether by human hand or otherwise, the entire history of the earth is a history of damage and destruction. This is a hard truth. But it sits alongside another truth: that healing is woven just as deeply into the fabric of creation.
Sometimes special intervention is necessary, whether it’s knee surgery or the active remediation of ecosystems. But generally, our bodies and our earth have the power to knit themselves back together, given time and some TLC. And in those cases where full physical healing isn’t possible, emotional and spiritual healing still is. God draws all of creation toward wholeness—or perhaps better put, toward “whole”-liness.
The invitation, then, is to step consciously into that river of healing and to let it take us toward a kinder, gentler way of treating ourselves, each other, and our common home. It can be hard to trust that current; we often prefer to limp along on our own weak knees. But perhaps we might become like the swan described by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which waddles awkwardly on land but, in letting itself into the water, finally finds its true grace and beauty
Grace and Growth
- Whenever you are ill or injured, bring intentionality to your prayers. Ask God not simply for recovery, but for growth toward a greater wholeness and wisdom.
- Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Swan” offers one of the most perfect images for allowing oneself to be carried by grace. Look for the translation from German by Robert Bly.
- Learn to find beauty outside your zone of comfort and familiarity. Make an openhearted visit to a run-down part of your town, a site of ecological damage, or even a homeless shelter.