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Redefining My Capacity


In a recent time-wasting activity no doubt related to trying to write something I wasn’t quite ready to write, I came upon the Latin word capere, which means “take or hold.” It’s the word that gives us capable and capacity, two words that have stayed in my thoughts since the afternoon of my linguistic exploration. Since we have been in the midst of moving during these last couple of weeks—in addition to all of life’s other daily requirements, I have considered both my capacity and my capabilities frequently. In particular, as I move forward in this somewhat new, semi-retired period of my life, I am thinking about what I really can take and/or hold vs. what I actually expect of myself. Maybe there’s no difference, but I’m often amazed at how much we ask of ourselves, whether we really can take it or not.

We spend at least 20 years honing our capabilities and expanding our capacities, whether we want to or not.

It should be noted that these are the philosophical meanderings of someone who can no longer remember which drawer holds the silverware, nor the location of the box holding the book I was reading just before the move began. Still, I’m in a phase of my life when I finally have the emotional and logistical room to decide not just how many chores and activities I can possibly cram into a day, but how many I choose to. During our working years—the ones in which we follow an externally determined schedule—no one asks us if we have time to complete eight more tasks. They simply remind us of the due dates and expect us to comply. They are no doubt facing the same requirements from someone above them.

For me, it only took a few years of this kind of set-up to blur the lines and lose my ability to discern the difference between expectation and capacity. In other words, just because I can complete 86 tasks in one day, is that really what I want to do? Is this how I want to live now that I have a choice? Is this when I am really most capable? These are not the kinds of questions we can ask when we’re in the midst of earning a living, so we spend at least 20 years honing our capabilities and expanding our capacities, whether we want to or not. By the time we retire, we are either completely burnt out, or we have developed superhuman skills. And honestly, in all my years of working, I knew I felt tired and somewhat overworked, but I figured we all felt that way. I had no idea how conditioned I was becoming to the belief that I was doing my best only when I was doing way too much.

This week, when we’re still only partly unpacked and our new house is filled with boxes and painters and I keep turning left instead of right to get to our room, Jodi and I are alternately (thank goodness) having meltdowns. We’re exhausted, stressed, and living in an unfamiliar house. Granted it’s all by choice, but that is only occasionally comforting. Mostly, because our edges are very frayed and our senses of humor are long gone, we each have a tendency to feel disappointed in ourselves. Fortunately, we are good at encouraging and supporting each other. If only we could extend that same generosity to ourselves. But I think it’s this issue of capacity and capability that keeps us from cutting ourselves some slack. “I’m a strong, capable woman,” I think to myself. “I ought to be able to handle anything.”

I get it that most people would be feeling just as I am during this chaotic time, but it’s hard to change what I expect of myself. That’s got to be one of the hardest lessons of this phase of my life. Continuing to return to work periodically isn't really helping with my learning. If I stay tied to the external world of work, I can continue to apply standards to myself that are devised by someone else. On my own, I have to delve further into the nuances of my goals and dreams and days to decide for myself what I’m willing to take on or to hold. But I like being 66 and still learning what it's like to be me.

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