A lovely personal reflection from Katy Attanasi:

This is a story about the tension that exists between Christian triumph and human frailty, between the ideal and the real, and between the myth of unlimited potential and the reality of constrained choices. Once upon a time, my 21-year-old self was on top of a world that overflowed with possibility. But life happens, and to my great surprise, I have just turned 40. My life does not look exactly as I imagined; but in those most broken places, where there is no escaping my finitude, I hear a whisper: “Be patient.”

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the following in Letters to a Young Poet, Letter four: “I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Leonid Pasternak, “Rilke in Moscow” (detail), 1928.

To be honest, I prefer answers (especially the “right” ones) rather than questions, which may be why I have loved and hated Rilke’s call to live into mystery. I pinned this quote to my office door and gifted it to my students at each semester’s end. Have patience…love the questions…live the questions…someday, you will gradually…live your way to the answer. When I turned to it a few months ago, I felt such disconnect­—because the questions I live into each day are about the daily bread and activities of my 4- and 6-year old children. Peanut butter and jelly versus grilled cheese is not exactly the same as the questions of love, justice, God, and faith that beckoned me through eight years of graduate education.

One night in a flurry I re-wrote the quote to fit my #momlife: I beg you, to have patience with everything that is unfinished in your life and to try to love the process itself as if it were an end in itself. Don’t try to do everything (as if you could do that anyway), because you would not even know what to do with yourself if you completed all that you want to do.

And so, in the summer of my 40th year, I sat down and made two lists: things to do, and things NOT to do before school started. On the first list went a few tasks like “write book review” (a professional obligation), “plan my 40th birthday party” (a social event) and “go to the pool every day.” My list of “things not-to-do” was quite a bit longer and contained those tasks that are always looming and never done. So I decided not to work on my photobooks (which accidentally got two mentions on the list), closet cleaning, paper sorting, and hardcore exercising. If I really wanted to slow things down, change my pace, and be present to my kids for their school holiday, I could not spare the mental real estate it takes me to worry about these hard-to-complete tasks. But it has not always been this way. I used to think I could do anything and everything. My acceptance of finitude—my acknowledgement that internal and external factors will always constrain me—has been a long time in coming.

Mary Cassatt, “Maternal Caress,” 1896.

It’s 2000. Life is bursting with possibility. I am graduating from a small Christian college with a perfect 4.0 and a triple major. My graduating class has elected me to give the Baccalaureate sermon. I am on top of the world—or at least my corner of it. I am full of optimism and dreams. In a few weeks, I leave to backpack in Europe, return five weeks later to walk the aisle as a glamorous bridesmaid in a New York wedding, and then lead a team of high schoolers on a missions trip to Mexico. In August, I enter the working world with my salaried job as a writer and editorial assistant for a Pentecostal missions organization. God has called, and I have answered. I believe I have prepared myself with my hard work and good behavior, and now the blessings to which I am entitled unfold all around me. As I stand up to address my graduating class, I am absolutely certain that I will do great things.

It’s 2008, and I am turning 30. I am flourishing in a doctoral program, but the past 8 years have been…unexpected. My travel in Europe, Africa, and Asia did as travel does: It destabilized me. When I looked into the eyes of a child dying from malnutrition in West Africa and saw the shock and destruction in East Timor after their political “trouble,” my uncritical faith in God’s omniscience crumbled, and I dispensed with such core beliefs as “good always wins,” “God is always ready to save the day,” and “Christians will always do what is right and help vulnerable people.” And so, I am not who I thought I would be—I have two masters degrees, but my heart has been shattered by a failed romantic relationship, and I feel like an outsider in my faith community. Even so, I deeply want to inspire my Christian brothers and sisters to care about their neighbors’ suffering. That is why I am in South Africa to research women’s experiences of HIV/AIDS, and in my borrowed room in a Pretoria township I am running up my cell phone bill by placing an international call to my husband of one year. I am distressed, and I want to go home: I am not rising to this challenge the way I anticipated. I wake up at 4:30 am to the sounds of horns and mini-taxis ready to transport day-workers to the cities. Then I fall back to sleep until I hear the sounds of women praying in tongues at the 6 am prayer meeting. I am the only white person I see most days. It is winter, and I hadn’t quite anticipated how cold my feet would be in my sandals. I am isolated—I can’t go anywhere or do anything by myself because of my host’s concern for my safety, and I am dependent: I rely on the kindness of strangers; the abundance of bananas, honey, and bread; and the mantra that persists—“don’t be afraid.” I am overwhelmed by self-doubt.

It’s three years later: I am 33 years old and 8 months pregnant, and I sit in a hospital waiting room while my husband has back surgery a few days before Christmas. I am in the third year of my tenure-track job at a conservative Christian university, but it has become increasingly untenable, and my husband and I are both quietly searching. We have lived apart for three of the past semesters while he gained teaching experience elsewhere. My university has broken its commitment to employ him, and our future here looks bleak. Perhaps I also sense what will be true: it will get worse before it gets better. Frustration, tears, disappointment. How can we bring our baby into such chaos and uncertainty? Why isn’t my hard work paying off anymore? Why isn’t our path easier? We are so disconnected and fragmented. No one here knows that my semester’s end has been marked by my husband’s ER visit followed by days of intense sciatic nerve pain. My husband’s health is so deeply personal and private. We do not trust anyone to allow them close enough to see our vulnerability. I am alone.

I am 36 years old and am completely exhausted and disoriented. We have a newborn and a two-year-old with separation anxiety. The summer of 2014 has been marked by two do-it-yourself moves, two surgeries, and a dramatic airlift to Mayo clinic for my daughter less than 24 hours after her birth. My husband—the smartest man I’ve ever met—has started a new job, and he is applying for permanent positions, working on two conference presentations, finishing his book, and experiencing such debilitating chronic pain that he is exhausted by the time he leaves the house at 7:30 am. I have gone from full- and part-time work to being a stay-at-home mom with a defiant toddler who thinks he is Curious George (the extremely naughty monkey) and a baby who refuses to breastfeed. I can’t check anything off a list because I can never find paper much less a pencil. And if I do find both, I will invariably lose the list before I can complete it. What am I doing wrong? Why is life so unmanageable? What happened to my potential and my career? Is this parenting thing so hard for everyone else? My friend of 13 years visits me, and she asks me what feels most pressing. With all the logic of a frazzled mom, I tell her that I really need to vacuum my car. She hears more than I say, and so she details my car and promises to visit me again soon. She tells me, “Katy, no one has it all together.” But still, I struggle.

I have turned 40. It’s 2018, and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for four years, and I have lived in the same city for three. We’ve grabbed that golden ring of a tenure-track job for my husband; and in the last year, his chronic pain has become more manageable. Parenting is still the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We own a house and have a church that we attend as if they still handed out attendance awards. I find myself in the space between the “already and not yet” and try to live into my world of lunches, kids activities, and school schedules. Life has not been what I expected. I have lived all sorts of questions, but none are what I envisioned Rilke to mean. When I think about all that I have torn down, built, and rebuilt, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for these 40 years of life. I’ve certainly not lived into very many answers.

Nevertheless, somewhere in this journey my faith has shifted, and I am coming to terms with my own limits. Life feels hard because it is hard. The so-called “triumphant” life feels so inaccessible because I am a sinful, finite person living in a sinful and broken world. In the words of Martin Luther’s “Lectures on Romans,” even “the church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents.” No one has been cured of the limits imposed by our human nature. But “finite” does not mean finished: our stories—and our answers—continue to unfold. The work of Christ on the cross for our salvation may be finished, but the Spirit is very much at work in the world today.

The gift of turning 40 has been the reaffirmation that I can’t do it all. I cannot escape these internal and external constraints. Where I used to think that I could do anything and everything, I have become better able to accept my human frailty and believe that even when I fail, I am doing the best I can. I am human, and so I will reach the limits of my abilities. This world is broken, and so the complexities of life will dictate constrained choices instead of unlimited potential.

My eyes adjust to these shadows in the imperfect parts of life, and I become better able to see the light of small successes, beauty, and kindness. I glimpse God’s grace in my times of self-doubt, loneliness, and struggle against my own finite limits. In those moments, my old friend Rilke reminds me again, “Have patience,” and I find in this call to patience an antidote to my harsh self-judgment and my addiction to achievement.

It’s a few months before my birthday, and I sit by the Gulf of Mexico with my two amazing, sweet, and delighted kids. My husband will join us tomorrow. The kids run toward the surf and then run away from rushing waves. For this moment, we have reached our destination. They laugh, and I laugh with them. On this night by the gulf, we are tired of travel. So, we’ll eat pizza and boxed macaroni and cheese for supper, and I will try not to feel guilty about that. The kids will protest the upcoming sand removal because they’ve forgotten that it’s just part of beach life. And for now, I have slowed down enough—and cleared my plate enough—that I can just sit and enjoy this moment. Like me, this moment is finite and imperfect, and it is still good.

Perhaps, even now, I am gradually, without even noticing it, coming to understand the incomparably perfect beauty of imperfection.