Limits and Ideology—Teasing Things Apart

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Some of the limits we face are just that—concrete inescapabilities. This is the case with physical limits, limits to what one person can be for another, and limits to what we can control or know absolutely. Beyond maturity’s threshold such concrete limitations become newly acknowledged—and obviously important to consider.

Other limits have more to do with limits inherent to old ways of understanding. Ideologies, by their nature, hide myths of limitlessness. Much of the purpose of past belief has been to protect us from how demanding reality can be. The fact of real limits is a major part of that more demanding picture.

We can put past stories of limitlessness into two broad categories. In the first category we find types of conclusions that in one form or another have always been parts of the human narrative. This includes mythologized alliances and beliefs in all their various guises. More generally we find conclusions of any sort that are based on polar assumptions, including two-halves-make-a-whole relationships (whether in leadership or love) and more everyday either/or notions about how things work. From our beginnings, such conclusions, in evolving forms, have shielded us from how big life can be.

The second category includes assumptions more particular to our most recent chapter in culture’s story. Our modern story of progress is unique to our times, as are the extreme individualist and materialist values that have marked our Modern Age. We also carry with us the Age of Enlightenment belief in an ultimately objective world ordered by rational/material principles.

Both kinds of narrative-related belief have helped our understanding of ourselves and our world move forward, but each also has affirmed views that protect us from recognizing ultimate limits. Most any time we confront limits of the concrete sort, we find that limits to past stories of limitlessness also come into play. We need to recognize these less obvious stumbling blocks if we wish to engage challenges that involve limits. Otherwise our efforts are too easily ambushed by ideology.

For example, we might assume that the inevitable breakdown of health care delivery systems is a simple product of increasingly expensive treatments. But it is also about modern medicine’s heroic mythology, which makes defeating death and disease its ultimate calling no matter what the cost. If we miss this more ideological contribution to the health care delivery crisis, we will fail to reach useful solutions.

Similarly, we might conclude that the need to address physical/environmental limits is a product simply of our audacious success as a species. And this would be partly right. But more deeply it expresses the end of the usefulness of a particular narrative: that we humans are separate from nature with appropriate dominion over her. In times past, we comfortably treated the natural world as a resource that existed to serve us—all we had to do was take from it. Given time, our present circumstances—of dangerously diminishing resources—were inevitable.

Is the great potential for conflict that comes with a globally interconnected world a result only of uncomfortable proximity and lethal weaponry? No. Conflict between human groups is as much a function of how, in times past, the elevating of one’s own kind and the denigrating of some “other” has been necessary to collective identity. Such sentiments have become dangerous and unacceptable with the advent of modern technological capacities. Going forward will require not just new policies, but new ways of understanding who we are and why we have relationships.

In a related way, we could believe that our need to rethink financial systems, and, more generally, to examine how we understand wealth and progress, is a function only of hard realities and the importance of better grasping how economies work. But, just as much, it marks the end of a way of thinking about human worth and human advancement that once served us, but which today leaves us emotionally impoverished and produces predictable house-of-cards results. Continued economic advancement requires new understandings of what growth is ultimately about.

Appreciating how ideological factors most always play a role alerts us both to how easily efforts to address limits can be undermined by outmoded beliefs, and to the fears they protect us from. It also affirms where the “antidote” to inviolable limits lies—in the greater capacity to hold complexity that comes with mature perspective. Engaging the threshold point that separates our two very different sorts of stories makes the fact of real limits—both limits of a concrete sort and, more generally, limits to past mythologies of limitlessness—vividly inescapable, and makes clear that further realities, just beginning to be grasped, lie beyond them.

Maturity’s threshold teaches us that ours is a world with real limits— and also that that is not such a bad thing. It also begins to reveal the larger, more complex reality that lies beyond inviolable limits. This includes the inherent role that limits play in any complete picture of complexity. Mature perspective provides the more encompassing understanding needed for ultimate limits to be tolerated. Such perspective also produces the newly systemic understanding required if we are to powerfully and creatively make our way in a world with very real limits.