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The Joy of Inability

Perfectionists. Overachievers. Straight-A students. We’re not the only ones who struggle with admitting failure. It can be really challenging for many of us to acknowledge that we can’t do something. We tried and didn’t succeed. We floundered for a while but eventually flopped. We thought we could, but we couldn’t. No one finds it easy to formulate the words in our heads, have them sit in our mouths, and ultimately roll off our tongues: “I can’t.”

Months ago, one of my colleagues said a most curious thing. We were in a meeting. Some particular task needed to be accomplished. She said something like “I need for someone else to do this because I am at capacity.” This claim is different from “I don’t wanna.” It’s not the same as “I’m not interested.” It is an honest admission of being unable to take on one more thing. There can be a measure of joy in confessing this kind of inability.

There is yet another kind of inability that brings about another kind of joy. It’s a joy more akin to relief. It’s having a burden lifted that we’re not strong enough to carry. It’s the rejoicing prompted by clarity. Some people might quip, “It’s beyond my paygrade.” But the truth of the matter is that there are just certain things we’re not meant to do. Even to attempt. It’s truly beyond us as limited human beings. Certain aspects of our lives and of our deaths are out of our control, greater than our ability to manage. Accepting this can give rise to deep joy.

Yet for those of us who grew up with the story of the “little engine that could,” this may instead get our up hackles up and prompt us to don our imaginary boxing gloves to wrestle with this admission. We don’t like to feel weak. We resist throwing in the towel. We do all we can to dodge the label of “failure.” One excellent therapy for this condition might be found on a river. To sit in a kayak or a canoe or an innertube and be carried by the current is a bit like the joy of inability. Yes, a little guidance from us might be required along the way. But mostly the water does the work. We could fight to change direction. But why would we? We could paddle like crazy to go a hair faster. But what would that be about? It’s best to relax and enjoy our inability to generate the experience. We might even call it grace.

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