Cultural Maturity and Limits

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future:

We like to imagine that life is limitless. This is particularly true today.  Television ads and popular culture announce that ours is a time “without limits.” Indeed, more is possible today than ever before. But never has making sense of limits been more essential. Our well-being—and perhaps even our continued existence—depends on it.

Like it or not, today we face a growing number of challenges that present inviolable limits, constraints that we cannot transcend no matter how intelligent or wise we might be. Some such limits concern inescapable physical realties—for example, limits to energy resources and limits to how much of the effluvium of civilization the planet can absorb. But many are as much about ourselves. Certainly we face inescapable limits with regard to the usefulness of many past ways of understanding and acting. We also face more general limits with regard to our human capabilities, for example, to what we can afford, what we can control, and what we can be for one another in relationship. In the end, we face inescapable limits to understanding itself, certainly to knowing things as absolutely as we might have hoped to in times past. The theme of limits is about inescapability most generally, at all its multiple levels.

The ideological beliefs of times past has protected us from directly confronting the fact of real limits. Cultural maturity’s changes make the fact of limits more readily acknowledged. They also make what limits ask of us more understandable. This is essential.  Often it is not at all unclear what to do in the face of such limits, or if there is anything at all useful to do. Cultural Maturity’s changes make the fact of limits not just more tolerable, but ultimately something we might embrace. Grappling with the quandaries that limits present offers one of the best ways to learn about the new, post-ideological common sense that comes with Cultural Maturity, and to begin making it manifest in how we think and act.

Confronting limits is nothing new. We could rightly say that doing so is exactly what the human story has been about. In first becoming human, we stood, defying the limitations of gravity. Later, we grew crops and built cities, confronting the limits to growth inherent to our hunter-gatherer beginnings. In the Middle Ages we constructed grand cathedrals that reached toward the heavens. Today we send people into space, transcending the very bounds of earthly existence.

But what our times ask is often very different. A growing number of contemporary limits—limits to planetary resources, limits to ways of acting that in today’s world become unacceptably dangerous, new economic limits, limits to what we can predict and control—are not conquerable, at least in the old sense. In times past, our task when we encountered constraints was to do battle. Today, we increasingly face limits that neither force nor cunning can defeat.

Successfully coming to terms with inviolable limits will be essential to any future we would want to be a part of. Recognizing inviolable limits and better understanding their implications should also play an increasingly central role in catalyzing the broader maturity of thought and action the future demands. For many people, it is limits that first make the depth of the challenges we face—and the need for something like what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes—inescapable. Parts of the message are hard, sometimes very hard. Other parts can be surprising in the unexpected rewards they reveal.

I find it helpful to think about of how Cultural Maturity’s changes alter our relationship to inviolable limits in terms of a sequence of recognitions. First, Cultural Maturity’s changes help us acknowledge that such limits do indeed exist. Just this first piece is significant. We have a great capacity for denial even in the face of inescapable evidence, particularly if consequences may not be immediate. Acknowledgement is where we must start. Many of the most important inviolable limits intervene at deeper levels than even the best of thinkers commonly recognize.

Second, culturally mature perspective helps us accept that inviolable limits are not the adversaries we might at first assume them to be. Hold life large and it becomes clear that ultimate limits are inherent to how things work—they come with the territory. We would not have life without limits (cells need their cell walls) or most anything we call beautiful (every painting has a frame, or at least a limiting boundary).  Culturally mature perspective helps us appreciate that while fantasy’s dreams of limitlessness may fire youthful delight, the guidance such wishful thinking provides is not something we want to rely on. With such more general acceptance, we are less apt to keep the implications of limits at arm’s length. Limits don’t in any sense go away. But we become more willing to accept them and engage them creatively.

The third recognition is least obvious and takes several steps into culturally mature territory to fully appreciate, but it is most directly pertinent to our project. Culturally mature perspective reveals how further possibilities—sometimes profound possibilities—can lie beyond seemingly impenetrable constraints. Confronting inviolable limits challenges us to think in new ways. Meet that challenge and we begin to recognize options not before visible. Einstein put this apparent paradox in a single sentence: “Once we accept limits, we go beyond them.”

How this might be so follows directly from Cultural Maturity’s changes. Confronting inviolable limits takes us over Cultural Maturity’s threshold. Stepping over Cultural Maturity’s threshold, simply because what we encounter is more complex and complete, presents new options. Each time we confront an inviolable limit, just a bit we take part in Cultural Maturity’s more “complexly complex” world and discover something new in what it has to offer.

Final limits can be hard taskmasters. But they also hold in their demands some of our time’s most important learnings. Engaged maturely, ultimate limits invite us to venture forth in new more mature, creative, and ultimately fulfilling ways. Recognizing today’s necessary no’s makes newly comprehensible—and realizable—many of tomorrow’s most important new yeses.