Limits

Twisty Tube - Tom at the first digFor those of us with the drive to explore, limits are fascinating and inexorably attractive things. For us, limits are always questions. Which limits are hard limits? Which are soft limits? Can you, through intentional flirtation with the boundary, turn the one into the other? Can you see and do things no one else realizes are possible?

Our societal experience of limits is similar. Yet, I think the drive of the explorer is not the only experience we have.

Sometimes, our societal experience of limits is euphoric. We can drag energy out of the Earth and use it to power a civilization. We can fly at tremendous speed from place to place in our world. We can even leave our world and visit another.

And sometimes it is deliberate. We can abolish the social evil of slavery and declare humans fundamentally equal. We can fight and die to protect the freedoms laid down in our founding documents. We can strive to reach beyond our present inequities to a hopeful future.

But sometimes, our experience of limits is toxic. Sometimes we can see the limits laid out by another person, and push past them for personal gratification. Sometimes we can see the limits inherent in our ecologic systems and ignore them for economic gain. Sometimes we can pretend hard limits are not hard limits at all, and become lost in our own delusions.

Discernment amongst these limits takes delicate and careful consideration. To treat all limits as absolute is foolish, and traps us in our own lack of imagination. To treat all limits as passable is equally foolish, and condemns us to our own hubris.

Yet discovering which limits are passable and which are not is often impossible in the abstract—it is the endeavor that truly answers that question, and then only briefly and specifically. When we learned to fly, we failed so many times over, and yet each failure was only an indictment of our understanding, not a referendum on the feasibility of flying. Once we succeeded once, suddenly we could succeed in a myriad of ways, as though the merest transgression of the edge were enough.

To be sure, there are some who drive beyond the pale. There are hucksters and scam artists whose genius lies in convincing the less-initiated that certain limits do not exist. Such people claim the ability to speak with the dead, to generate guaranteed returns from the stock market, to make your wildest dreams come true if you only believe hard enough. But I think it is not considering these things that is unreasonable—it is approaching them with blind certainty.

Since I cannot say in abstract which limits are firm, I rely instead on the depth and breadth of the experience of others. What does the evidence say? And then, what can I imagine in the uncertainty?

I think the only sane way to approach a limit is with the keenest awareness of it. Not blindly, with the presumption that I can speak to the dead or win the lottery. Nor ignorantly, with the absolute certainty that anyone who sees things differently than I do is wrong. Nor haughtily, with the expectation that only effort lies between me and the other side.

Instead, the explorer approaches a limit with questions. What are you? How far do you travel, and how wide is the gulf? Is it possible to go farther? What is required to reach beyond?

I think limits are not truly there to wall us in, or to make us despair, or to be ignored, or to be transgressed. I think limits are there to be discovered.

 

Image Credit: My Own

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