Bucket Theory: What happens when you hit your limit?

Bucket overflowing shutterstock_1069622183

When my wife, Sarah, was working as a nurse in an allergist’s office, one of the common questions was about the “sudden” onset of an allergy in a person who had not previously been bothered. This physician said there was no definitive explanation, but that one theory seemed quite possible. It’s called the “bucket theory.” According to this theory, even as a bucket has the capacity to hold a certain volume of liquid, our bodies have a certain capacity to resist reacting to certain substances. Once that capacity is hit, however, like the bucket, it begins to “overflow” with various reactions. Our bodies can resist for a while, depending on the capacity of our “allergy-resisting bucket,” but then we start to react.

I see a message here. It seems to me this provides a framework for assessing the well-being and reactivity of our emotional and spiritual lives. Have you ever noticed that you “suddenly” have a problem with anger, impatience, or working on a project? Perhaps this is an indication that you’re hitting your limit in a certain area. The onset of “symptoms” is more about the condition of your heart, mind and soul than it is about the particular symptom.

Another analogy for this is “saturation.” Like dry ground soaking up water, we can absorb a great of activity and pressure—until we hit the saturation point. Then we become overwhelmed, resulting in reactions like shutting down, withdrawing, or stressing out.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes,

Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed. Life has become a weight… What happened to change our enthusiasm to pain, and why did the change come upon us so unexpectedly? Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.

According to electronic systems expert Roberto Vacca [writing in The Coming Dark Age], the development of many modern systems exhibit “the character of continuous and exponential growth, and their variation obeys a well-known mathematical law, the law of the phenomenon of growth in the presence of limiting factors [my emphasis]. At first the effect of these limiting factors is hardly noticeable, but there comes a time when they begin to predominate and to produce the phenomenon known as ‘saturation’… Often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually: it may be felt all of a sudden.”

We are all human, with inherent limiting factors. This is not an excuse, but a reality to which we must pay attention. Maybe this is what happened to Moses in Numbers 20, when, instead of speaking to rock to bring forth water in the wilderness, he struck the rock in anger.

Maybe this helps us understand (not excuse) David’s vulnerability to seeing Bathsheba bathing.

Maybe this is a clue to Paul’s impatience with John Mark in Acts 15.

I love to push life to the limit, experiencing all God has for me and giving my best in God’s service. But I have learned (often the hard way) I have capacity limits that cannot be ignored. Even good and great things can become too much. Again and again I come back to Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV), “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

 

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