We live in a world in which it has come to be generally believed that we can be, do and have whatever we want—if we put our minds to it, try hard enough, and/or buy all the right products. Yet in this hyper-individualistic culture we have become so self-obsessed that we no longer see the bigger picture, the wider view of the earth community that we are situated within, and the destructive effects our unhealthily self-absorbed perspective is wreaking.
The truth is that there are limitations on who we can be, what we can do, and what we can have. Nature places limits on how we can (and should) live, which we are meant to (though typically do not) defer to. Our bodies, and the circumstances we are born into and that form our lives are also natural and necessary constraints. This doesn’t mean that we don’t contain great potentials and possibilities within us; nor does it mean we should ignore the injustices and oppressions that form unnatural constraints on our lives and the lives of others (those limits should certainly be destroyed).
But what it does mean, I think, is that we find who we are, and our place and purpose in the world, in the fertile space between our potential and our limitations. As poet, typographer and translator Robert Bringhurst has said:
Wings are a constraint that makes it possible to fly. (1)
Nonhumans don’t seem to have much trouble with this: a banksia tree cannot be anything other than itself, a being of banksia-ness; a magpie cannot help but sing as magpies do (though perhaps this is changing, because of all the damage humans have, and are, doing to the natural world.) Yet, for us human beings, being ourselves—when we have lost so many of the cultural tools which taught us how to achieve this—is often the hardest thing.
Un-centring our thoughts, becoming less self-focused, and accepting the constraints we have been gifted with (yes, gifted!), are, I believe, crucial to this process. We are not atomised individuals, but exist within a web of interrelations and dynamic processes. We are all constrained and full of potential, all of us navigating the path of our particular lives, which intertwines and intersects with the lives of others. Thus, we must tread gently, considerately, in the life-dance with the humans and nonhumans around us, and with the land we live on.
|Flowering Old Man Banksia, Banksia serrata|
I am aware that this is not a popular idea. Most people want to overcome limitations, to smash through them, to boldly declare that there are no limits at all to what humans can achieve or what we can become (take, for instance, the recent talk of creating colonies on Mars or the moon—ridiculous and arrogant proposals that are not grounded in respect for the earth, or even physical possibility). But I am not interested in popularity, only in the truth, the Real, the beautiful constraints of what is.
The fact that we are in danger of destroying the biosphere that creates and sustains all life, is proof that we have been arrogantly disregarding nature’s limitations, as well as our own—focusing on wants, rather than needs; on having, rather than being or experiencing; and on trying to create false selves, rather than finding out who we really are. It is time we were more humble, more thoughtful about how we conduct ourselves as humans. There are limits, and they must be respected.
In his poem ‘Finch’, Bringhurst writes of the many birds who visit the bowl of birdseed in his garden:
They speak of what they are, not who
they do or do not wish to be.
That is a form of moral beauty … (2)
This is true. To become fully ourselves, and to live in connection and relationship with the earth, is what we are here to do, and it is both a form of moral beauty and a moral imperative. Yet, the existence of limitations should not discourage us, for between constraint and possibility, is where we can fly.
1. Robert Bringhurst, ‘Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America’, in The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2006, 2008, p. 208