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Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Recognizing the limits of one's capacity -- ABIQUIU , N.M. - Above and around Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain here that Georgia O'Keeffe made famous by painting so often, the sky has just turned a textured pewter and is heavy with the promise of afternoon rain.

To the east, however, several miles away, there is at the same moment enough blue left in the sky to make one think of lizards sunning on high desert country boulders and of earth so dry it no longer remembers the surprising feel of rain.

That's what I love about the skies here in northern New Mexico. They are endlessly new, endlessly different, endlessly engaging. At any moment, there are likely to be three, four or five different skies. The kaleidoscope turns, however, and 15 minutes later it's all rearranged, all transformed.

Sometimes I have sat outside under these revolving firmaments and simply watched for long, quiet stretches of uncharted time.

It's like marinating in large bowls of eternity. It slows the eager heart, gives pace to drawn breath and somehow comforts the wounded soul.

But it does something else, too. It reminds me that there is a great deal I'm not in charge of, cannot change, do not control. And that's something I need to know.

Nothing I do at this silent moment will make any difference to the sky. It will darken or not, clear or not in response to forces far beyond my puny power to affect it. I cannot, G-d-like, speak a word and cause there to be light in the cosmos.

It is a profoundly useful thing to understand (though not to misread) our own limits. Such an understanding can relieve us of inappropriate guilt, let us take responsibility for what truly is ours to own and release what can enslave us if we insist on grasping it too tightly.

When I am out of sorts, off plumb, often it's because I yearn to control what is not mine to rule. It happens at work sometimes. It happens at home now and then. It happens in other places and times, too.

I'm a little better than I used to be about knowing - before it drives me to distraction - that I've run into one more place where I don't make the rules. Still, it takes discernment born of experience to know one's limits and not to quit either too soon or too late.

Even in public matters, it helps to recognize where we can make a difference and where we can't.

I have noticed, for instance, that Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair, Jiang Zemin and NATO never purposefully seek my advice or pay any attention to how I think they should behave. So, although I do not lose interest in them and do not quit having and voicing opinions about them, I do not feel responsible for the choices they make.

Perhaps it's most difficult to learn all of this in our relationships with our children, whose capacity to make us crazy can be unbounded. At some point, however, we parents must let go, even if it means that our precious babies will make bad decisions.

When children are little, they finally must find their own limits climbing trees, riding bikes, diving into pools. When they finally are grown, we cannot control what they do with their lives, whom they love, what they believe.

My own mother spent countless frustrating years imagining that she could shape the smallest aspects of the lives of her four children. She wanted my hair cut shorter. She wanted one of my sisters to do this, another to do that and a third not to do something else. The list was like the New Mexico skies - ever changing but perpetual.

Beyond all that, she wanted my father to be someone a little bit different from who he was.

She wanted him, for instance, not to be red-green color-blind so she wouldn't have to make him change his mismatched clothes after he had dressed himself. That would have kept her from making him feel stupid day after annoying day.

In spending so much emotional capital on what she could not change, she ate up a small eternity of time she could have used to know us better and to encourage the gifts we all had.

I don't think my mother ever saw the chameleonic, show-off skies of northern New Mexico. And if she had, I don't know that she would have been moved by what has struck me - the need to accept (and even enjoy) what we cannot change.

Her failure to grasp that is not the only thing about her that I regret now that she's gone, but it is perhaps the most indelible.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved