Grappling With Inviolable Limits

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Grappling with final limits of any sort engages us in a predictable sequence of experiences. That it does provides important guidance and also supports this possibility of ultimately positive consequences. First, we tend to deny such limits exist, or at least that addressing them will require anything new. Next, reluctantly, we acknowledge the fact of real limits, but feel frightened and disturbed by what we encounter. Finally, we begin to recognize new possibilities that before we could not have understood, much less realized. We begin to appreciate how a further world, in many ways even more significant (but also more demanding), lies beyond. (Not surprisingly, these steps are similar to what people go through in grieving any important loss, such as a death.).

For example, until recently most people kept the implications of our natural environment’s physical limits far out of sight and mind—in spite of ample evidence for such limits’ inescapability. Even if people didn’t ignore the existence of environmental limits, they assumed that future inventions would make the perceived limits irrelevant. Today we tend more often to reside in the second stage with environmental limits. We acknowledge such limits, but relate to them primarily as realities that diminish us. That is a start, but ultimately not enough. If we see the task only as learning to do with less, we remain well short of a solution. Most people find “doing with less”  uncompelling as an ultimate solution—and appropriately so. Consequently, even when warnings about environmental limits are heard, too often they are not heeded. A further step is needed—one we are starting to recognize. Confronting such limits head-on must somehow be understood as enhancing the purpose and potency of our human experience. This additional step fundamentally alters the conversation and reveals choices that before we might not have considered.

It begins with the recognition that thinking of resource limitations in terms of “doing with less” captures only part of the picture. Confronting such limits challenges us to understand “more” in fuller ways. Certainly acknowledging limits in this way makes for a healthier planet, and that benefits everyone. But questions of resource sustainability (fulfilling one’s needs without diminishing the options of future generations) also lead us toward issues at the heart of our modern crisis of purpose—questions about the nature of abundance (about when enough is enough). Such questioning provides a critical antidote to times in which what often most defines us, and links us, is how much we consume. The result is a new and deeper appreciation for the diversity of factors that make a human life rich.

This might seem like an idealized picture. But it is essential that it is not. If it is wrong, it would be hard to justify being positive about the future. And in my experience it isn’t wrong. People who choose to live more environmentally friendly lives and stick with their choice rarely describe feeling deprived. In fact, most feel quite the opposite.

We find the same progression when engaging limits to what one person (friend, lover, or leader) can be for another. The whole notion of Whole-Person/Whole-System relating at first doesn’t make much sense, or if it does, it doesn’t seem particularly appealing. For example, with love, the Hollywood stereotype of romance can have much greater initial attraction. Later, we begin to recognize the dangers that accompany making one person another’s answer, but interpret the need to leave behind the idealized romantic picture we have known as a sentence to loneliness. We grieve the loss of the romantic dream and the wonderfully comforting hope that we will one day find someone who will understand us completely. Eventually, we realize such loss as the entry point to mature love. We begin to appreciate possibilities that before we could not have recognized, much less realized. The old dream remains as a source of reminiscence, but only that.

We recognize the same progression more generally with any surrender of cultural absolutes and mythologized truths. Confronting a loss of familiar social guideposts—and as we approach maturity’s threshold, recognizing the possibility that no new ones, at least of the absolute sort we have known, will appear to replace them—at first evokes denial. Similarly, we tend at first to keep the growing inadequacy of polarized descriptions of truth—political, philosophical, or religious—at arm’s length. With time, we realize that what we witness is in fact the loss of a surety that never really was—the death of once necessary illusions. This may at first evoke only fear or despair. But the other side of maturity’s threshold reveals that what these changes mark ultimately is the possibility of more nuanced and embracing truths, ways of understanding that better speak from the fullness and wonder existence has to offer.

Inviolable limits always have much to teach us, and not just with regard to the particular issues they relate to. Certainly they teach us about humility, remind us with Wordsworth that, “wisdom is often nearer when we stoop than when we soar.” A bit more deeply, they teach us about proportion. I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s often quoted prayer: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” More deeply still, they help us see a bit more clearly  what reality is about, and in an important sense has always been about—at least as far as seeing is possible through our human eyes. This clearer vision, besides helping us better make our way, also invites us to consider options that we could not before have recognized as such.