How Do You Love What You Keep?

They say riddles are good for helping us think differently.

Intentionally cryptic or even misleading, they force our brains to work outside of automatic mental habits. In this way, riddles encourage critical and creative thought, aid discovery of unexpected connections, and enhance our problem-solving capacities. And they’re fun.

At a time demanding different ways of thinking, maybe we need more riddles in our lives. Here’s one.

What do Icarus, astronauts, and the social fabric all have in common?

Answer: Each holds lessons about the need to respect limits, even as we’re pushing them. When we don’t, things tend to break down.

Avoiding death and destruction seems like a good reason to embrace limits, but it’s not the only one. Limits not only help protect life, they’re our ticket to a good life.

The desire for a healthier life more in tune with natural cycles is part of what motivated me to establish a farm. In creating certain obligations, my aim was to impose limits that would “force” a better balance between mental and physical labors, time spent indoors and outdoors, virtual and direct experience of the world.

Still, knowing their value doesn’t keep me from feeling the pinch of limits, especially the ones I impose on myself.

It’s not easy to enforce restrictions that, on some level, we know we don’t really need to (or at least not now).

This is one reason why we in wealthy industrialized modernized technologized societies (or WIMTs) have a hard time accepting limits. Of course, our not accepting them doesn’t diminish their reality one iota. They’re there, operating, and they’ll make themselves known sooner or later.

At a time when we’re approaching certain collective social and environmental thresholds, it’s more important than ever that we understand and acknowledge limits. In the process, we might even learn to embrace them.

Limited Unlimitedness

Limits are inherent to human life, as they are to all life. We can only move so fast, jump so high, do so many things at once. There are only so many hours in a day. And our days are numbered.

There’s no getting around biophysical limits.

We can, however, forget them, at least temporarily. Our amnesia has two main causes.

It can happen when those limits are not asserting themselves in obvious ways. When time feels unlimited, resources appear infinite, and everything’s working as we think it should, for instance, our awareness of finitude can fade into the background.

It also happens sometimes when we stretch boundaries to a point that obscures our view of them—like a cosmic rubber band thinned to near transparency or stretched so far that its end is out of sight. We do this chiefly through technological developments and the exploitation of more or different sources of energy. Often the two go hand in hand.

Whatever the reason, going on too long in this state of forgetting can cause big trouble.

There are, at the same time, certain unlimited human qualities at work.

Our capacities for imagination and wanting more, for example, know no bounds. The mind can conjure anything. And there is no governing mechanism keeping our desires at or below some established acceptable level. We are unlimited in other wonderful ways, but these two—our unlimited minds plus our aptitude for losing sight of limits—make for a dangerous combination. The good news is that we’ve long known this.

On both counts, we have been onto ourselves since time immemorial.

That’s why, in societies sufficiently in tune with reality, one of the basic functions of culture is to convey the lesson of limits, even as it facilitates our ability to push them.

The Dual Role of Culture

The emergence of human culture—a revolutionary means of non-evolutionary adaptation for survival—enabled us to stretch some biophysical limits, especially of our bodies. Because of culture, we can live in otherwise inhospitable environments, move faster, ascend higher, and generally do more—to a point.

This point is a common theme addressed in ancient mythology around the world. Icarus is one among countless characters who help convey the message. Whether applied to wealth, power, longevity, knowledge, or some other perceived good, the moral of these stories is that seeking any of those beyond a reasonable limit brings harm and potentially far-reaching destruction.

The wisdom of limits is also transmitted through social structures meant to convey, enforce, and perpetuate that quality in a culture—the values, beliefs, symbols, norms, and the material conditions which reflect and reinforce all that.

The world’s religions, historically important purveyors of culture, feature restraint as a prominent theme. All great wisdom traditions include an emphasis on things we won’t do.

(As it happens, the day of this posting offers a good example. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent in western Christianity, a season of remembering the limits of our mortality and implementing special restraints and actions for the sake of our own, and the greater, good.)

Through various means, a wise culture maintains proper tension between facilitating the pushing of some limits while also reining in the impulse to do so.

Our Unique Challenge

At this strange moment, we not only lack a culture that furnishes us with a healthy sense of limits, we have one that pushes us, from almost every direction, to exceed limits or stop believing they exist altogether.

Among other things, a heritage of ideas sanctioning conquest and unbridled growth in conjunction with the sudden bonanza of fossil fuel energy and the proliferation of its uses catalyzed an intense and rapid stretching of limits previously constraining the basic logistics of everyday life.

As a result, we have experienced extraordinary and rapidly accelerating increases in, for example:

  • the amount of stuff we can acquire
  • how much “work” we can do in a day
  • how much information we can access
  • what and how much we can eat and when
  • how far we can travel in a given amount of time
  • the number of people we can encounter and know
  • and more

The overall effect has been a transformation of our sensibilities, especially in terms of what we deem possible, likely, and necessary.

These sensibilities are deliberately encouraged and manipulated (Temu’s “Shop like a billionaire” ads, which recently aired during the Superbowl here in the U.S., come to mind as examples.) But they are also shaped by the experiences overall conditions make possible, and eventually “normal.”

Over time, these influences have congealed into a set of collective assumptions and habits of thought, what Wendell Berry (2008) calls “the doctrine of limitlessness.”

Swimming against this prevailing current, modern prophets like Berry have long decried the dangers limitlessness poses to the integrity of environments, persons, and the social fabric itself. If we fail to impose limits on ourselves, they warn, reality will impose them for us.

They urge us to take up the work of acknowledging limits and developing a culture of restraint.

So far, their message has been mostly lost on—drowned out in—the mainstream.

We do, however, find support for this sentiment where we might least expect it.

To Infinity and Beyond! (*some restrictions apply)

Astronauts could be viewed as among the most devout devotees to the doctrine of limitlessness. It’s surprising, therefore, to detect in them an awareness and enforcement of limits reminiscent of wiser cultures.

For various reasons, they go to great lengths to defy gravity—one of our most fundamental limits. But even they explicitly recognize the perils of doing so.

In the near weightlessness of low-to-no gravity environments, where the body doesn’t have to exert much effort to hold itself up, bones deteriorate and muscles weaken. To avoid these outcomes, astronauts must impose limits on themselves. They wear weighted suits, do specially designed exercises, and enforce strict time limitations.

There’s a fascinating parallel at the socio-cultural level.

The following excerpt from Nature Education (2016) summarizes it well. Replacing mentions of gravity with the word “limits” and references to life on earth or biological with “human social” (as I have below) renders a succinct statement on the importance of limits for the long-term well-being of individuals and societies.

“Clearly limits [have] played a vital role in the evolution of human social life over [m]illions of years.

…All human social processes have evolved under the ever present force of limits such that even temporary changes in limits instantly make a noticeable impact.

With our sights set on establishing human life beyond limits, it becomes imperative to understand the detrimental effects of zero limits and devise ways to counter those.”

Even with stark differences between the stated goals of the space program and an aim like establishing a sound culture that supports a good life here on earth, we can recognize the same tension at work between respecting and pushing limits.

There’s a resonance between their message and that of our prophets:

When the world around us ceases to impose important limits, it’s imperative that we understand the detrimental effects of that and counter them by strategically imposing limits on ourselves.

Choosing Limits

There are any number of good ways to deliberately DIY limits in our personal lives, families, organizations, and communities.

Admittedly, this is not without challenges. Some are logistical; this sort of rearranging can take some doing. Others are psychological. To choose is, by definition, to exclude other possibilities. And foreclosing on possibility is anathema to our culture.

On the other hand, we have a lot working in our favor.

1. We already know how to do this.

We may not think of it this way, but we choose limits all the time. The decision to get married, have children, not have children, or adopt pets are all common ways. In exchange for the restrictions these choices place on us, different aspects of our selves, lives, and relationships can expand and deepen in ways they otherwise couldn’t.

Likewise for those in our care. Parents set and enforce boundaries in the interest of raising healthy well-adjusted kids. Teachers create structures to liberate learning in their students. In a twist on the classic riddle,

Q: How do you keep the one you love?

A: You don’t.

we might say that limits are a way to love the ones you keep.

2. Limits help us avoid what we don’t want.

We’ve been paying more attention recently to some of the presently unlimited aspects of life that are literally making us sick and tired (see the above list). And we’re showing at least small signs of wising up. Increasingly, people are measuring phone usage, limiting sugar intake, setting boundaries around work, scheduling down time, and so on.

We have a long way to go and a lot of damage to reckon with, but we’re learning. And there’s momentum in this direction. Happily, our efforts to reduce what we don’t want tend naturally to bring us more of what we do.

3. Limits are the only way to get more of what we really want.

The human feats we most treasure and admire—great works of art, music, writing, science, or athleticism, for example—are the products of profound and usually prolonged dedication. They are possible not only because of what people do, but because of the many other things they (we) forego doing. This applies to more mundane pursuits, as well.

According to various polls, at the top of the list of what makes us happy are things like: time with loved ones, a feeling of calm, meaningful work, physical and mental well-being, a good night’s sleep, and a sense of purpose. Nobody reports wanting more time on their phone or at a job, more consumer goods, more news and entertainment. To the contrary, attaining what we really want is only possible when strict limits are imposed on that which detracts from them.

Beyond these present desires, we also want to bequeath a good future—to ourselves, our loved ones, all young people, and future generations of life. Achieving that, it is increasingly observed, requires deep cultural change.

Preparing the Ground

The Latin cultura comes from the past participle stem of colere meaning variously to tend, guard, cultivate, promote growth, and inhabit. As a gardener and farmer, I really appreciate this imagery. Tending, guarding, and cultivating the land has literal as well as figurative relevance for us today.

No matter how hungry we are, we won’t be able to instantly bring forth food from abused or neglected land. We can, however, anticipate the need to do so and, step by step, create the conditions that may (if we’re lucky and the stars of less predictable forces align) result in an abundant harvest.

Similarly, no matter how we might hunger to belong to a sound culture, we can’t instantly call forth qualities from a people which have not been cultivated. What we can do, in small patches here and there, is to create the conditions within which what we long for may someday grow.

Among other things, this entails accepting and imposing limits, and promoting those capacities in the people and places we have a role in looking after, or “keeping,” to use an old-fashioned word.

There are no guarantees. But whatever happens down the road, the riddle-like surprise is that engaging in this work on behalf of others and of a better day improves our lives, in many of the ways we really want, today.

I’ve heard it said that we teach what we most need to learn, and write about what we seek to understand. Both have certainly been true for me.

As I find myself struggling against the limits in my own life, (self-imposed and otherwise) it occurs to me that what I’ve written here is what I need reminding of at the moment.

Limits are a necessary part of bringing about the life I long for, and of caring for the people, places, and futures we’ve all been entrusted to keep.

References

Berry, Wendell. 2008. “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.” Harper’s Magazine. May issue. Pp. 35-42.

Ranganathan, Noopur. 2016. “Cosmic Travels Inc.: The effect of zero gravity on the human body.” Scitable by Nature Education. May 11. https://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/scibytes/cosmic_travels_inc_the_effect/

© Copyright Debbie V.S. Kasper All rights reserved.


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