We all enjoy a story about someone who, against all odds, conquered challenges and overcame limitations. The morbidly obese individual who lost over 150 pounds to run a marathon, for example. But what happens when limitations become permanent (at least on this earth)? Does a personal limitation or disability discourage you? In this article, we explore three benefits of having limitations and two techniques of meaningful survival and even thriving within the constraints of limitations.
Do Not See Limitations as Failures
Our limitations help us to focus on our opportunities. You have seen guide or service dogs. Noble beasts that lead a blind person down the street or fetch items for a person in a wheelchair. Ricochet was a golden retriever; like her brothers, she was training to become a guide dog. There was just one problem: she could not stay still in a confined place. Her athletic abilities allured her. She was especially fond of water. Yes. Ricochet failed the service dog course. Or did she?
Her owner decided to use Ricochet’s drive for physical activity and taught her how to surf. She became a star athlete. All her winnings, as among the top canine surfers, are dedicated to the cause of helping the disabled, wounded veterans, or veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Ricochet even enjoyed taking disabled children on her surfboard for a ride and acted as a therapy dog to pets. Between 2010 and 2015, she earned $450,000 for her non-profit causes. By the time Ricochet died in March 2023, Ricochet had helped raise $1 million for charity and the donation of more than 1 million bowls of food for homeless animals.1
Why is Ricochet successful? Her limitations to staying focused in a confined space helped her find her niche!
A Limitation or Inability Catalyzes Our Appreciation of Others.
Limitations make us vulnerable, but they help us to appreciate others who are often overlooked. You would think that plummeting from the position as a prestigious space engineer who helped put a man on the moon and other NASA ventures to a school janitor cleaning bathrooms is a giant demotion. Maury Forrester does not see it that way. Once certificates and awards decorated his office; now, a janitor’s closet is his office! In 2014, Maury suffered a stroke or brain trauma that led to his cognitive decline—humiliating for a competent astronautical engineer. He took the janitor job as a means of exercise. Humble work for sure, but it gave a gratifying sense of belonging and community as Maury integrated into the school’s community. Students happily greet him, and he is glad to see them, too. Maury feels their love. When asked if there were some miracle that restored his mental faculties fully, would he return to being a space engineer? His voice has no hesitation when he replies, “I can’t say that I would give this up.” 2 Limitations help us to discover previously unknown blessings.
Your Limitations Might Be Your Ministry!
Sometimes, our disabilities discourage us. Limitations of opportunity thwart our best efforts. These limitations lock us in! Or do they? I first met Joan Herman in the seventies at a small rural hospital in Wildwood, Georgia. Joan was fell victim to polio in the 1940’s.
Completely paralyzed except for her head, Joan was confined to an iron lung machine for nearly 24 hours every day. What were Joan’s contributions to society? She would analyze and refine the budding skills of us nursing students. It was evident that she and the director of nurses had some agreement on producing quality patient care workers.
In 1967, a swimming accident fractured Joni Erickson’s fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, leaving her a quadriplegic, 17 year old, young woman. She experienced much doubt, anger, depression, frustration, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts as she endured physical therapy. Twelve years later, Joni and John Nugent began a non-profit organization distributing millions of wheelchairs and mobility devices to persons with disabilities worldwide. If you were to ask Joni, was all that loss and suffering worth it? The resounding answer is “yes”.
Even though limitations make us vulnerable, they can become the very instruments with which we help others. Some of us, like Joan, help one individual at a time, while others have the capacity to help many at once, like Joni Erickson Tada.
Faith and Gratitude Energizes Efforts.
Ann is a tough woman with a sensitive soul. At age 13, her mom developed paranoid schizophrenia. As a young woman, she was almost strangled to death, and struck by cars on two different occasions. Ann took care of her mother for decades. She suffered from major depression and PTSD for many years. In her fifties, Ann developed kidney cancer. In her sixties, she had a below-the-knee amputation and, at 70, developed lymphoma. I saw her after she had completed her radiation and chemotherapy. Indeed a remarkable, brave lady. Perfect? Certainly not! She had her moments of anger, impatientience and depression. But guts, oh yeah! So I asked Ann, “What got you through this?” Her reply was faith in God and gratitude for living a meaningful life serving others and her friends.
Gratitude is powerful.Indeed, several studies show that gratitude has been significantly and positively linked to happiness, life satisfaction, flourishing, positive affect, building resilience, and improved coping.3
Helen was always a friendly, outgoing person with a knack for teaching and a keen observer of nature. During the 1950s, she developed tuberculosis and lived an isolated life. The physical isolation does not help, either. Helen experienced seasons of depression (a common comorbidity of TB). She could not teach because she had to stay isolated. Helen watched as the autumn winds stripped the colorful leaves from the branches of deciduous trees. She felt, in some aspects, that she had been stripped, too. Helen knew that the falling of the leaves helped to prepare the trees to withstand the heavy weight of the snow. So maybe she was in the process of being prepared, but for what?
Helen did rise above her frailties. For many years, Helen shared her observations of nature in books, articles, and tapes. She knew what was transpiring on the school campus. Occasionally, as Helen walked in the woods, she would greet a student warmly. I was one of the students she encouraged.
You know, sometimes, we experience mental setbacks, and we cannot function, as we desire. We may be used to working up front, but we find ourselves backstage or in the background. Although Helen died many years ago, the lessons she taught me are still pertinent today. As I often struggle with my current limitations, her profile of courage brings me comfort and a smile. We can still contribute and live meaningfully even when physical or mental constraints force us into the background.
We want to overcome challenges and limitations when we can. If some residual constraints remain, we should seek to make the best of our condition–physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. But rest assured, even when limitations remain, God has the ability of transforming them into unlimited opportunities! Look for them!
- Loi NM, Ng DH. The Relationship between Gratitude, Wellbeing, Spirituality, and Experiencing Meaningful Work. Psych. 2021; 3(2):85-95. https://doi.org/10.3390/psych3020009