Celebrating the Beauty of Limits
In my previous post, I examined the way we are being changed by trading embodied life for virtual life. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to read that first. Today I’d like to consider another aspect of the great trade: limits for the (theoretical) unlimited.
Until recently in human history, limitation – in ability, in proximity, in station of life, in economy, in diet – was taken for granted. Your average medieval Eastern European serf did not waste time imagining ownership of the land he worked and planning a way to obtain it. In many societies there simply was no ladder to climb, and you were born to your task, regal or rural, whether you liked it or not. (I realize that I am broadly generalizing, and there are always exceptions and very interesting stories to go with them, but I think the central observation holds true.)
Limitations governed the amount of food that could be grown on a given acreage; the amount of persons necessary to work that land; the places you could go, or see; the folks to whom you had access; the variety and freshness of what you could eat; the knowledge you could learn and apply; the images and faces with which you could be acquainted; and practically everything else in the range of human experience.
These days, largely because of ubiquitous advertising and the advance of industrial technologies, even though we recognize that there are still limits out there somewhere in many areas, they are fuzzy at best. We live practically as though the possibilities for our lives – mind and body – are unlimited, and we are frequently shocked and even offended when we stumble upon a limitation now and again. You and I have come to believe, I fear, that we are entitled to an unlimited existence.
So then, what do I mean by limits? I think I have already tipped my hand, but to summarize:
- ‘A life within limits’ implies geographical, bodily and economic constraint. You and I cannot go just anywhere (contrary to the implication of Microsoft’s slogan); in many respects we cannot be otherwise than we are (in this body); the resources we have for food, clothing, shelter and energy are finite and demand that we consider ourselves as stewards (rather than ‘consumers’).
- ‘A life within limits’ implies an upper bound to knowledge and ability. There is far too much to know; to put it bluntly, your ignorance will always be extraordinarily great in proportion to what you know. The fact that so much is ‘out there’ to be learned and researched actually increases the need for a good, strong filter. Give us only the most important, because we don’t have room for anything else. Likewise with our abilities and achievements; we may do many things – even incredible, unbelievable things – but we cannot even begin to approach doing everything.
- A life within limits is lived in recognition of the general principle of moderation. Most things, even very good things, can be experienced too much or too often. Being conscious of our limitations makes us more reflective, opening our eyes to ways that we allow technologies, activities, or commitments an immoderate presence in our day-to-day lives.
- ‘A life within limits’ indicates that not all options are open to us. This is the lynchpin for our understanding and application. In Mediated, Thomas de Zengotita’s most perceptive observation (one among many) is that in today’s turned-on and tuned-in world, a world of advertisers, flattery, and entitlement, everything is optional. When we say, ‘The reality is…’, we mean, ‘what’s coming next is unfortunately (and unusually) not an option.’ Our lives are shaped not by decisions involving ‘real or fake’, but ‘real or optional’. To own our limits in this environment is to grow up a little and recognize that our choices are not, in truth, endless – nor ought they to be.
The beauty of limits, then, resides in the way they bring forth maturity and humility when acknowledged, cutting through layers of futile expectation, self-absorption, and illusion about our world and who we are.
But what about the unlimited life? What are we trading our old-fashioned limitations for?
- The unlimited life is (ultimately) a life of unrestrained consumption and transformation. The technological explosion of possibility seems to be removing all need for restraint, not to mention moral codes. You only get one time around, and aren’t you lucky it’s in the twenty-first century, where you can go anywhere (at least virtually), do anything with anyone (across networks, anyway), have access to the best the world has to offer, use it (or them) quickly and with gusto, and toss the wrapper away before it’s too late!
- ‘The unlimited life’ implies delusions of grandeur concerning the human condition. With the surgeon’s assistance and a little cash, we can actually remake our physical selves. But whether or not we ever undertake that kind of god-like change, we remake our electronic identities continually, and for essentially the same reason: we’re choosing who we want to be, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. And our knowledge, our identity, our ability seem to have (at least for now) no fixed borders.
- The unlimited life is wired in advance for excess. Let’s face it: if you think that your only limits are your imagination, your wallet, and your gadgets’ bandwidth, why stop at any point and move on to something else when you’ve found what you ‘like’?
- ‘The unlimited life’ implies a straining to believe in universal infinite possibility. Our common faith in ‘progress’, planted during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, has flowered in this era and borne the fruit of limitless expectation. New and faster (and brighter and bolder and louder…) experiences must happen to us all the time lest we draw near the peril of boredom. I think that we are deeply aware that infinite expansion – in culture or entertainment, in gadgetry, in fiat currency supplies – is not possible in a finite world, but we would like to hide this reality from ourselves and nurse the illusion as long as possible.
The unlimited life halts the process of growing up and eventually always leads to selfish and destructive dispositions and actions.
Like embodied life for virtual life, we have been thoughtlessly trading limits for the ‘unlimited’ for many years. These two postures toward life tend in very different and often mutually exclusive directions.
As we absorb more and more ads, in shops, on screens, on the highway, on the net, our perception of ourselves gradually changes. Who on earth is trying to get our attention twenty-four hours a day, at any cost, all over the country and throughout our homes? An entire industry is employed, at a cost of many millions every year, to study exactly how to do just that, and the reason is simple: images create desires (more on that in another post). Commercials are the parables of our society, illustrating to us in five- to thirty-second chunks the elements of the truly ‘good life’. And what is the overriding message, or takeaway?
You have no limits. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ ‘Have it your way.’ ‘Because you’re worth it.’ Can’t you think of a dozen more now that I’ve got you started?
Not only is your life limitless: all you have to do to experience the unlimited is a little cash. You can alter your identity; re-brand yourself; lose weight; gain weight; build muscle, lose fat, make more time, save energy, see the world on a shoestring budget, improve your memory, speed-read (amass more factoids in far less time!), give your house, your dog, your car, your face, or your diet a makeover, learn a new trade (or a half-dozen!), win friends and influence people, and all in your underwear and from the comfort of your own home.
Unconsciously, as we take in and process these messages visually and cognitively, the ‘real’ world of limits begins to fade, off-scene, into the background, and the illusion of the unlimited takes hold. Some of us have traded more than others, but we (who inhabit this media culture) have all been affected.
Many of us are burning the candle at both ends because we are afraid to give up any of our ‘options’ or ‘possibilities’, lest the fulfillment we have been promised is just around the corner down one of those ten or twenty or two hundred roads.
But we’ve got to begin to reverse the trade if we would regain sanity. How can this be done?
Here’s a start: recognize your own limitations, and assess whether your virtual life has got you involved in far more conversations, networks, causes, projects, and pursuits than you could ever realistically dream of being truly engaged in all at once. Then drop something.
Recognize that your time each day and your time on the planet have inflexible bookends, and your mind and body can only do so much. Then determine what is really worth focusing on.
Recognize that the earth has limits also, and support (with your money) persons and companies who are taking that into account through conservationist and sustainable principles in producing food and energy.
Turn off the TV (and I’d destroy it, if I were you) and every other factory of desire-creating images in your home and learn to reject the underlying theme of the unlimited. Set limits for yourself deliberately regarding the time and thought you spend on things that matter less.
You will be more human, and you will be more happy.
What do you do to reverse the trade? Let us know in the comments. Maybe you’ll help someone else!
One illustration of limitation I was struck by recently was, of all things, in watching a Disney cartoon with my daughter. Tangled, an adaptation of the fairy tale of Rapunzel, opens with a song that leaves the excessively haired heroine singing of her daily routine. Because trapped in a tower, her access to the outer world is limited to looking out windows and to reading and re-reading the only three books in her home.
A lifelong lover of reading, I’ve always been blessed with more volumes than I could read through in one day or several. And yet how many of the great leaders of history were shaped, at least in part, by the limitations that doomed them to read and re-read and even meditate on what was available, rather than getting lost in the vacuous webspace that lets one devour (or skim) articles until the mind tires of even coming up with topics for which to search.
“I think that we are deeply aware that infinite expansion – in culture or entertainment, in gadgetry, in fiat currency supplies – is not possible in a finite world, but we would like to hide this reality from ourselves and nurse the illusion as long as possible.”
And in our day, we so nurse such illusion on every intellectual level that our most excellent minds latch themselves to such foolish ideas as the “all possible worlds” and multiverse theories of existence, such that if a concept can be conceived, then it simply must exist somewhere. One might be tempted to say the implications are endless, but they are many, including that it presents the attempt to achieve the self-defeating idea that no idea is worse than any other, that all are equally valid.
Thanks, Mike – good to hear from you again. Definitely a pertinent observation! I haven’t seen Tangled (that’s how out of touch I am now), but what an excellent illustration I would have found there. Your point about people being shaped by the few books they had on hand reminds me of John Bunyan. He was converted largely as a result of two books which were, more or less, his wife’s entire dowry at the time of their marriage. One of them was called ‘The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven’ and I can’t recall the other title right now. But between a couple of books and the scriptures, the life that was to bear the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ fruit took shape.
That also reminded me of a sort of corollary concept I’ll write more about sometime – the fact that we have celebrities now rather than heroes. A substantial part of ‘hero formation’, if I may be so crass, in past culture was that people only knew a few things about the persons they lionized. Even in early America – a few photos or portraits that most folks might have had access to, and a number of stories which were told and retold (and undoubtedly grew with the telling). Nowadays, with unlimited access, we know so much about everyone in the limelight that tables have turned; folks who might be considered ‘real’ heroes on the basis of extraordinary deeds (who perhaps performed daring rescues or made groundbreaking discoveries) have to compete with the people who perform on screen for a living just to become known, let alone remembered. And if they are not ready to have their lives made into public movies, they will typically be forgotten in a matter of hours.
I really liked the observation that the fetish for the unlimited produces tendencies toward what we typically refer to as relativism in many areas of thought and life. It also results in ideas like Hawking’s bubble theory of the genesis of the universe.
Another excellent article; hitting most of us between the eyes. It should give us cause to reconsider many of the roads we are heading down. I know my wife and I already have.
Thanks for the commendation. I still feel from time to time that I really have to force myself to remember the limits, even though the stress and eventual upset that are always down the ‘unlimited’ road are staring me in the face. Culture and media are powerful forces!