The Wisdom Of Limits

Embracing the limits we face will help us reach cultural maturity

One of the articles in Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32)
Originally published in Summer 1992 on page 48
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute


In a recent essay, economist Herman Daly identified one of the core symbols of the ruling American dream of unlimited growth: the Merrill Lynch bull. Ranging freely through TV commercials, over a landscape empty of people and other animals, the bull "knows no boundaries." The image is, however, a terrible distortion of reality; boundaries, limits, and relationships are the major structural elements of our world. The dream of unlimited growth – the "Boundless Bull" of Daly’s essay – is an illusion; and as Daly notes, the bull is actually operating in the "china shop" of our planetary ecosystem, and must learn to tread more lightly.

Charles Johnston, MD, is a cultural psychiatrist and futurist who directs the Institute for Creative Development, a think tank and leadership training center in Seattle. He is author of two books: The Creative Imperative (1986) and Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultural Maturity (1991).

With growing frequency, we use the word crisis when defining our times. We have an environmental crisis, a drug crisis, a crisis in education, crises in love and the family. An unsettling characteristic links these various crises: few appear solvable simply by working harder at what we have done before. They ask new things of us – at the very least new perspectives, and very frequently whole new ways of acting and being.

These myriad crises have common themes. One of the most important is that they require us to relate to limits in new ways. For the new kinds of limits that present themselves today, our old attitudes and approaches not only will not work, they threaten to be our undoing.

How have we related to limits in the past? We’ve engaged them heroically. Our cultural story told us that limits were obstacles to get beyond, adversaries to defeat. This heroic call has defined much of our modern era. We conquered the Wild West, defeated polio and other diseases, and transcended the bonds of gravity and the limited vision of the past to venture into outer space.

Today we face new kinds of limits, ones for which this story, however grand, will not suffice. We are only beginning to understand what will be entailed in successfully meeting these new limits. But we can say with some certainty that both our future fulfillment as individuals and our future well-being as a species will depend intimately on our coming to understand limits in new ways.

A recent conversation thrust me into grappling with this new challenge. It could have been about most any of today’s crises, but this conversation was about the health care crisis – over lunch with a man who was instrumental in the development of Canada’s health care system.

Part way through the conversation he turned to me and said, "Charley, you in the United States look to our system as a possible model. But, you know, we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’ve done well with the initial task: making care available to everyone. But we’ve kept the hardest question well at arm’s length. Combine equal access with an increasing ability to keep people alive almost indefinitely and you have a formula for national bankruptcy. At some point, we have to acknowledge the fact of limits. However uncomfortable it makes us, we must face the necessity of rationing care, of deciding what we can afford and what we can’t."

On first encounter, the challenge of an equitable health care system, while certainly complex, seems largely technical. In fact, like most critical challenges in our time, one can’t grapple with it effectively without being transformed by it. At its heart is this issue of limits: modern medicine’s great success has been born from a heroic story, the courageous task of defeating death and disease – at almost any cost. Rationing care (which we now do covertly, by not ensuring equal access) requires that we accept the fact of economic limits. More than this, it requires a new relationship with life’s ultimate limit: death. Rationing care requires that death be seen as more than just an evil adversary. It propels us into having to write a new kind of health care story, one in which life and death are no longer opposites, but collaborative voices in a larger conversation.

Confront the new limits in any domain and we are ultimately led to re-ask the most fundamental of questions. This is certainly the case for health care. Acknowledge economic limits and pretty soon we are asking questions like "Wouldn’t it make sense to spend more of our resources on prevention?" And then, "If prenatal care is valuable prevention, what about good nutrition, and if good nutrition is important what about cleaning up toxic chemicals in the environment, and if that is part of it too, what about the effects of poverty, and lack of housing, and …." That list might look pretty overwhelming and unsolvable. On the other hand, it might be "just what the doctor ordered" – a fresh, systemic, "big picture" look at health.


The new limits are of several types. The most obvious are physical limits: in resources, in space for the effluvium of civilization, in how many people can be crammed onto the planet before our presence is our own undoing. New inventions can help with some of this – more energy-efficient technologies, renewable approaches to energy production, and the creation of products that are more easily recycled. But ultimately these limits ask changes in ourselves – in the choices we make and how we live our daily lives.

In addition to physical limits, we are challenged to acknowledge new economic limits. Some of these – in health care, for example – reflect primarily the costs of new technologies outstripping our ability to pay for them. But many seem to be expressions of a more fundamental process.

In the Industrial Age, we came to expect economic growth as a given. Progress meant ever-expanding production and consumption. But mounting evidence suggests that such expectations may not be fulfilled in the future – and that this may not be a bad thing.

Working with business groups, I often comment that the goal of "keeping America number one" may not be achievable. Putting the present situation in a developmental metaphor, I suggest that there are just too many places in the world now with the youthful, single-minded determination needed for maximum material productivity. Then I offer that while remaining number one in the old sense may not be achievable, there is a sense in which providing economic leadership is not only a definite possibility – the future welfare of the planet may depend on it. This new economic leadership would replace the "onward and upward" call of the Industrial Age with an economics based on defining wealth and progress more maturely, in terms of things such as quality, ecological sustainability, the health of communities, and the vitality and creativity of the workplace.

A third kind of limit is easily the most unsettling. We are being confronted by the fact that there may be real limits to what we as human beings can know and do. Central to our times’ heroic story has been the notion that the potential of human knowledge is essentially boundless. The Industrial Age reinforced this view in grand fashion. We saw life’s mysteries brought more and more into the light of reason, and nature’s fearsome might succumbing with amazing rapidity to the powers of human understanding.

Today, from myriad directions, we are having to face the possibility that reality is greater than this. The fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet dis-union remind us how limited we are in our ability to predict even momentous events. Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Challenger disaster confront us with the magnitude of risk present in any human endeavor. And more and more the cutting edges of theoretical understanding – from Heisenberg in physics, to Gödel in mathematics, to Chaos Theory – challenge us that uncertainty may not be just a function of incomplete knowledge. It may be inherent to reality itself. Decisions that lie ahead for us as a species will increasingly require that we humbly acknowledge how much in life we cannot predict or control, however bright we may be and however good our intentions.

The challenge of managing technologies that have the power to do major planetary harm offers a good example. This summer, the institute I direct will be convening an international think tank on nuclear waste disposal. As I prepare for it, I find myself reflecting frequently on not just how little we know, but on how much of what we would want to know is simply not knowable. A glimpse: nuclear waste includes many substances which will remain deadly for at least a quarter of a million years. Most solutions and safeguards assume some ability to keep an eye on the stuff, which in turn assumes stable governments and stable economies. In modern times, the best we humans have done at stable government is a couple of hundred years. And modern civilization as a whole has been around but a few thousand. Given this magnitude of uncertainty, it is highly unlikely that a solution can be found that will provide a really satisfactory level of safety (and we already have significant quantities of waste to deal with, whatever our decisions about future production).

New limits to what we can know and be are essential not only in important cultural decisions, but in every aspect of our daily lives. The challenge of what it takes for love to work in our time provides a ready example. Not too many years back, we had a pretty reliable formula for love: gender roles. Learn the right gender behaviors and you could be pretty confident of discovering someone who had learned the complementary set and living in relative happiness. Love was like fitting together two halves of a puzzle.

Today love relationships are not so easy. Increasingly, love that works is love that involves the coming together of two relatively whole people. One of the hardest parts of whole-person love is accepting that there are real limits to what we can be for each other. In the two-halves-make-a-whole love, we are each other’s answer, white knight and fair princess. Whole people are just people, something that at first may seem a loss, but which in time offers the potential of a profound new richness and maturity in love.

A similar dynamic reshapes every kind of relationship in our time – parent and child, teacher and student, friend and friend, doctor and patient. In each we are being challenged to accept that there are major limits to what one person can be for another. To the degree we can accept that challenge, we discover whole new depths and richnesses to the meaning of relationship.

The fourth limit demanding our attention is life’s ultimate limit: death. It confronts us on several fronts. The most obvious concerns the magnitude of the future decisions that will be required of us. In a way new for us as a species, many decisions are questions of life and death, both for ourselves and for other life forms that inhabit the planet with us. Although we have always been capable of destruction, we have never before been capable of anything remotely near the kind of global destruction possible today. If we wish to make future choices with any responsibility, we must acknowledge the potential mortality of species, our own and others.

Death confronts us in new ways more personally as well. We see this with issues like rationing health care, abortion, and the right of the terminally ill to die. Here we are being challenged to acknowledge not just that our actions can result in death, but that in certain situations the most life-giving choice may involve siding with death. We have sided with death before – in wartime, for example, and with the execution of criminals. But always before the person to die had been an "other," someone already cast out from humanity in our minds. Life is now presenting situations where siding with death is something much more personal, where choosing death may be the most loving option for ourselves or for another who matters deeply to us.


How do we best understand these new limits and what they ask of us? It is essential that we at least begin to answer this question. Today’s new limits are not conquerable in the old sense. Yet, our traditional heroic story says that failing to conquer a limit is defeat. Without some larger perspective, our options are two equally unhelpful responses: denial on one hand, or depression and desperation on the other.

This discussion of limits points toward an analogy I’ve found particularly useful in seeking out such a larger understanding. One of its powers is that it offers a way to understand the limits we face in positive terms. It is a developmental analogy, to a particular time in our individual lives: the mid-life transition. Look closely and one finds striking parallels between the challenges of the Industrial Age and those we encounter more personally during young adulthood, that period when our fundamental developmental task is to strike out and make our places in the world. In a similar sense, a look at today’s quite different questions reveals challenges very akin to those we face as we enter the second half of our life.

At mid-life, the critical life-tasks shift from achievement to wisdom and perspective. Each of the four new cultural limits outlined above ask a similar shift and have direct parallels at mid-life.

Grappling with physical limits is certainly a part of mid-life: limits to how young and beautiful we can look, limits to our physical strength and abilities. Try to conquer these very real limits and our lives become increasingly absurd caricatures of youth. The task is to find the wisdom and courage to learn what these limits really mean. To the degree we are successful, our fears of being "over the hill" fall away to reveal a quite different landscape. In this new landscape, beauty and strength come to have new, fuller meanings – more seasoned, deeper, more complete.

In a similar way, the new physical limits on the planet need not make us less as a species. Meet them with open eyes and they can lead to a more mature beauty and strength in who we are.

Mid-life confronts us as well with economic limits: at first with the recognition that achievement may not continue its past onward and upward trajectory, later with the fact that we likely wouldn’t want it to if it could. Mid-life is about mortality, and the simple fact that "you can’t take it with you," whether the "it" is accomplishments, relationships, beliefs, or possessions. Mid-life challenges us again and again to reexamine our "bottom line," to look closely at what most matters, and to have the courage to live life as it most enriches us.

Similarly, today’s cultural economic limits can serve us positively by challenging us as a species to find fuller meanings for concepts like wealth and progress.

The third kind of limit, the limit to what we can know, is also pivotal in the mid-life story. Mid-life is the point in our development when we finally, truly, let go of our parents. While physically we left them many years before, now we must leave them symbolically as well. Life challenges us to accept a new, more complete responsibility. With this it reveals that existence is a much less sure and predictable thing than we had assumed in the past. We remember back to our grandparents saying "the older you get the less you know," and with both trepidation and gratefulness realize what they were trying to express.

In a similar way, our loss of cultural absolutes confronts us with life’s uncertainty. From the beginning of human time, culture has served as a parent to us. Our individual lives have always involved uncertainty, but before this loss, culture – whether defined in terms of omniscient deities, codes of right and wrong, or the laws of science – has offered some final external absolute. Today this is changing. Our times ask us not just to succeed in love, but to take responsibility for shaping new, larger definitions of love. They ask us not just to progress, but to redefine fundamentally what it means to progress. Within the psyche of culture, our times ask us to be "parent" and "child" simultaneously: in short, to "grow up" as a species.

Mid-life also confronts us with that final limit, death. Adolescents and young adults know the word for death, but they don’t yet really believe in it. In the second half of life, mortality becomes a constant presence. As we anticipate death, it is hard to imagine that facing it might be a positive thing. But in fact death is life’s ultimate teacher. Life teaches knowledge and experience, but it is death that teaches wisdom. Death challenges us again and again with the final question of purpose: "When I reach the end of my life, what will I most want to be able to say about my brief time on the planet?"

It is frightening how directly life confronts us these days with images of death – the nuclear mushroom cloud, the growing extinction of species, AIDS, spiraling population with its attendant specters of famine and ever-increasing environmental degradation. We can either be overwhelmed by these things – i.e., as with mid-life – or we can see them as a call to a new responsibility and maturity. At mid-life, facing the fact that death is real opens us to the full wonder and complexity of life in a way not before possible. If we can muster the courage, our times would seem to offer an opening just as profound.

If I were asked for a single word to capture what our times demand, it would be that word which most succinctly defines the fundamental task of life’s second half: wisdom. It is not a word we use easily or really trust. But it is this the future most requires of us.

The new limits that confront us will be a primary arena for learning about and testing our much-needed new wisdom. We can deny the new limits. We can give up, let them defeat us. Or we can embrace a third, more challenging option. We can use them to help us learn about the new maturity, courage, and perspective on which our future depends.

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