The Earth's the Limit

The oft-repeated doctrine of a progressive development of mankind to an ever higher perfection [...] is opposed to the a priori view that, up to any given point of time, an infinite time has already elapsed, and consequently that all that is supposed to come with time is bound to have existed already.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.172-7, 184


1. Living between extremes

We always exist between a pair of opposites.

Think about the temperature of the room you are in. How would you describe it? Hot? Cold? Warm? Whatever word you come up with to describe it, your description will always fall between two points:

1. The hottest temperature
2. The coldest temperature

Let's visualise them differently:

1 < ----------------------------------------------------------------- > 2

The temperature in your room must fall somewhere between these two points. It cannot fall anywhere outside of them, because they represent the limits of temperature, the most extreme possible. Whatever is the hottest or coldest thing you can think of, then they are it.

In truth, these "hottest" and "coldest" temperatures don't really exist. They are just ideas inside our heads. Someone will have recorded the hottest and coldest temperatures, but one day somebody else may record a hotter or a colder one.

To give another example. Take a look outside the window and pick an object. How would you describe its size?

Somewhere in between?

Again, your description is always going to fall between two points:-

1. The smallest thing
2. The largest thing


1 < ----------------------------------------------------------------- > 2

And again, whatever you see cannot fall outside of these two points. In reality these limits are only defined by the tools that we use to measure them. So right now the smallest object may be a quark, but when we develop more sophisticated microscopes we will probably discover smaller objects. And then we'll develop even more sophisticated microscopes and see even smaller things. And so on. Into infinity. So in reality our two boundaries are always shifting.

But however you think about these extremes, we always exist between them.

This is the way our minds experience the world - by placing everything between two opposites - and it applies to every area of our life. 


2. Line and Circle

It is on one such pair of opposites that we will focus.

1. Expansiveness

and its opposite:

2. Limitation

Sometimes it is helpful to visualise these ideas as images.

Number one, expansiveness, can be represented by the image of an arrow travelling in a straight line. The line is infinite: it has no beginning and no end, it just keeps travelling onwards into space, forever.

Number two, limitation, can be represented by an arrow travelling in a circle. Instead of travelling forward into space, the arrow goes round and round, following the same circular path forever.

We can see these opposites at work in many different places.

Lets imagine two musicians. They have equal talent, but very different ambitions.

1.The first has modest ambitions. He just wants to make music for the people he knows and if he achieves fame locally then this is good enough for him. He does not desire fame beyond this.

2. The second has grand ambitions. He wants to use his music to become as famous as possible. He hopes that there will be no limits to his fame. His name must ring out across the country, the planet, the galaxy!

When it comes to the fame that they desire, our musicians have different ways of thinking. We can describe our first musician as having a limited mindset. Whilst he recognises that his talent could make him very famous, he does not want to maximise his fame. He is happy with being appreciated at a local level, and it is here that he draws his boundaries.

Our second musician has an expansive mindset. He wants to be as famous as possible (and then even more famous!). He does not place any limits on his fame. The only limits are those applied by his environment, not those applied by himself.

Another example is the way we think about time. In our culture we tend to think of it as linear - as progressing in a straight line, ever onwards. In other cultures, time is thought of as cyclical; as ever-repeating. Thus 'progress' for us is a voyage into the unknown; it involves improving and building upon the past. To them it may be more about re-treading familiar territory and repeating familiar patterns.

I'm sure you can think of many other day to day examples of these two ways of thinking.

Here are some other words that are associated with expansive, along with their opposites:

Expansive                                     Limited
Global                                           Local
Infinite                                          Finite
Deregulated                                 Regulated
Undefined                                     Defined
Novel                                            Familiar
Unpredictable                               Predictable


3. Wisdom of Commerce

As a society it seems that we are collectively in the grip of an expansive mindset. This is because we view most things through the eyes of our economic system (through commerce). Where once our values may have been determined by religious standards, now they are determined by economic standards. "Good" has become synonymous with "good for the economy." Something is worth doing if it promises to bring material gains. Success is generally defined by abundance; in other words, by having a lot of something (be it fame, property or money).

Commerce demands expansiveness. It is embodied by the image of the line, continually travelling onwards and upwards, tearing up new ground and seeking new frontiers. For commerce to prosper, there must always be growth. How often do we hear politicians talking about "growing the economy" as if it were the meaning of life?

This is because most of our politicians are caught in the grip of the expansive mindset. They are guided by the wisdom of commerce, which is to expand at all costs. This is at odds with true wisdom, which recognises the necessity of limitations. It knows when enough is enough. It knows that constant growth without end, and without any thought to the preservation of resources, is simply and wholly unsustainable.

If we were to let the wisdom of commerce rule our bodies, for example, then they would not last long:

Our body is a balanced system. Generally speaking, it strives to keep itself this way. If we get too hot then we sweat. If we get too cold then we shiver. We have all sorts of ingenious systems in place to keep us balanced and healthy. There is a wisdom written into our body. This wisdom combines many ways of thinking - both expansiveness and limitation - into a very well balanced whole. If we somehow managed to overthrow it, replacing it with some other system that we thought was better - a system that was based on a very singular way of thinking - then we would soon start seeing problems.

If the expansive mindset ruled our bodies then what would happen?

We would begin to maximise everything that we did. We would eat too much, drink too much, sleep too much, stay awake for too long, run for too long. We would get too hot, too cold, too alert, too tired, too happy, too depressed.

In short, our bodies just wouldn't know when to stop. Everything would be done to excess.

Unchecked expansiveness is the hallmark of cancer. Is it a coincidence that a society caught in the grip of an expansive mindset is beset by such a disease?

Clearly our bodies would not stay healthy for long if ruled by this kind of "wisdom". Thankfully they frequently ignore the short-sighted demands of our minds, and take their guidance from their own inbuilt wisdom.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our society. We are not guided by a timeless and balanced wisdom. Like the dysfunctional body described above, we have reprogrammed ourselves to be ruled by a singular way of thinking.

When we are in a society that is guided by the wisdom of commerce then true wisdom necessarily suffers.

Inasmuch as it is short sighted, and centred around limitless growth, the wisdom of commerce can be described as a youthful wisdom. In this sense is not really "wisdom" at all. Traditionally within a society it would be the elders - those who have seen and lived - who would advocate limitations. Their conservative influence would temper the youthful spirit, which naturally seeks to explore, push boundaries and challenge limitations. It is a timeless balance.

Now that we have fallen collectively under the wisdom of commerce - synonymous with the influence of the youth - we find ourselves in an unhealthy imbalance. The youthful - expansive - mindset rules, and is no longer tempered by a mature influence.

As a society we have become immature.

We have only to look around to see manifestations of this epidemic.  We are afraid of aging. Maturity has lost its place and value. We no longer see the point in it. Our old people are now striving to be young, abandoning their roles as elders. Many are carted off to homes where they can trundle about without bothering the rest of us. Instead of being wise they frequently become selfish, vain and obsolete. Any wisdom they do have to offer rarely gets to see the light of day, and it is even rarer that such wisdom makes it into the public domain where it may be able to guide us collectively. 


4. Global vs Local

Remember our two musicians from before? Which one would you class as the more successful? We generally seem to measure success by how expansive something is.  The most successful musician is the one that either sells the most records or achieves the greatest fame. Likewise, the successful artist is the one that sells their work for the most money, or, again, has the most fame.

The local artist - the one that achieves limited reknown - is generally thought of in lesser terms than one who has international fame. It may be that there is little or no difference in their talent. Fame separates the two, elevating one in the eyes of society (i.e. the eyes of commerce).

"Local" has become synonymous with inferior. This is a natural and predictable outcome of our current way of thinking. Viewed through the eyes of an expansive mindset, local is defective. It is not expansive enough.

The local business suffers in the face of the multinational. The local hero suffers in the face of the international superstar. Both pale in comparison to their expansive counterpart.

A world of novelties has been laid before us - distant lands, novel experiences, exotic people - diverting our sights away from our immediate surroundings. We are persuaded to look outwards and upwards - for inspiration, for sustenance - and lose belief in our ability to sustain ourselves. We think we need things from outside, that outside - far away - is somehow better. The grass is always greener elsewhere.

Where once we may have sung our own songs and told our own stories, we now have world-reknowned singers and high budget films. These things rob us of our self-sufficiency, yet we are drawn to them like moths to a flame. 

We forget that our community can produce its own heroes, who are just as worthy as those from afar. If a community does produce internationally reknowned talent, this talent will generally abandon the community in favour of somewhere "better" (i.e. not local), thereby reinforcing the idea that local = inferior.

Large chains - supermarkets, fast food restaurants, clothes shops, and so on - dispossess us of ownership, the ability to craft our own locality. We no longer have any say in what our surroundings look like. They end up looking like every other "local area", with the same shops selling the same things.

Local character is disappearing.

At one time, to travel to a different part of the country would have been like travelling to a different country altogether. Each area would have its own character and traditions that would bind the locals together and create meaning in their lives. These are now dying out, to be replaced with a more generalised - globalised - sense of self.

We no longer have a strong sense of identity. We don't really know who we are.

When we are encouraged to think expansively, as we currently are, then the idea of "local" is bound to suffer. In becoming global citizens, we risk forgetting how to be local citizens.

When "local" suffers like this, we necessarily become disenfranchised. We lose our independence, our ability to look after ourselves. 

If people stop believing in themselves they crumble. It is the same for communities.


5. Heroes

Our heroes are distanced from us. 

They do not live where we live, and they are not like us. They are somehow special. Where once the best singer you knew may live on the next street, he or she now lives in a far away world of celebrity; a world unlike our own. The importance of local heroes is that they are attainable; we can talk to them, ask them questions, socialise with them, get to know them. Understand them. We may even take over from them one day. Global heroes generally appear to be unreachable, untouchable. Their distance makes them appear unearthly. We have a sense that we will never reach them, let alone become one of them. They tower above us and exert a form of tyranny.

Our heroes have become heroes of commerce, rather than heroes of morals.

We look up to them because they best embody the goals of our commercial culture; not because they best represent universal and timeless moral standards.

We admire them despite the fact that they often reflect the worst in us, not the best.

Our youthful mindset produces immature leaders.

Imagine you are stuck on a desert island with a group of people. They vary in age, from very young to very old. You must all work together in order to survive. Who will your group take direction from?

For some reason you decide to take your lead from a seven year old.

Being immature and unwise, the directions of your leader are frequently based on shallow thinking and selfishness. Because he is your leader, you begin to unconsciously elevate the values that he embodies. Childishness, selfishness, and youthful hedonism reign. You all become like children. It is fun for a time. You enjoy the lack of responsibility. The fun, the games.

You forget that you are on a desert island, and that you must do what it takes to survive. Your long term survival does not fit into your leaders short-term way of thinking. He rapidly leads you to ruin.

Would it have been a different story if you had taken your directions from someone more mature? Someone who had an eye on the long-term welfare of the group. Someone wise?

A leader should be elected to lead because he or she is fit for the role. They should act with the best interests of the collective in mind, and put their own interest to one side. They should embody the best in their people, and should strive to be the best they can be in order to inspire those around them. In short, they lead. And they lead in a positive direction.

Can we say this about any of our current leaders? How did they get to where they are? Are they in it for us, or for themselves? Can they show us the way? Do they inspire us?

We must think about who we are looking up to - who we are elevating - and for what reasons.

6. Uses of Limitations

As a very modern development, the internet is a vivid embodiment of the expansive mindset. There are few borders on the web. When we open our browser we literally have the world at our fingertips. We can find out just about anything, and see things from all corners of the world. It is easy to access - many of us can now log on in the comfort of our own home - and is always there, whenever we want it. There are clearly great benefits from the kind of freedom that the internet offers. When we have a wide spread of information at our disposal we are less susceptible to one sided propaganda and manipulation.

But there is another side to this freedom, that is easy to overlook. When we are faced with a never ending world of information and possibilities it can easily become overwhelming. In times gone by we would have used libraries, newspapers and word of mouth to find out about our community and the world at large. These sources have their limitations - libraries shut at certain times, have a limited catalogue; newspapers have a limited number of pages - and so our borders were drawn for us.

The internet does not have a limited number of pages, or a closing time. The limitations that our environment once imposed on us have been defeated by this triumphant technology. We no longer have to travel to access our information. We no longer have to wait for books to be ordered, or papers to arrive. But when we look at the bigger picture, could it be that these limitations were actually good for us?

Where once we would have had limitations imposed upon us - decisions made for us - it is now up to us to decide when enough is enough.

The internet can seem overwhelming because it is a world with few limitations. It is an extreme product of a mindset taken to an extreme. It is expansiveness without its opposite, limitation, to balance it. It is up to us to apply this balance, for our own health.

Some of us may be good at this. We may only visit certain sites at certain times, and know our limits. But some of us may not be. When faced with limitless possibilities it is easy to get carried away and to lose sight of how much is too much. We become like kids in an overstocked sweetshop.

We limit ourselves every day. We stop when we have eaten enough. We do not drink too much. We know when we are exhausted, when our body needs to rest. Limitations keep us healthy, stop us from doing things from excess. But when we are caught in the expansive mindset we naturally begin to lose sight of their value.

This is when we eat too much, drink too much, work too hard, consume too much. We do so because we are unable to limit ourselves, or we have lost sight of the value of doing so. We need to ask: are we, as a society, beginning to lose sight of the value of limitations?

It may be that a lot of the "problems" that we are trying to find solutions for - the limitations that we are currently trying to overcome - are only problems because they are being viewed through the lens of expansiveness. When we remove this filter we may well see that a lot of our problems are in fact blessings in disguise. The anchors that we are continually trying to slip are there to keep us grounded. Without them we will drift off into space and lose ourselves completely.

7. Restoring balance

If we allow the expansive mindset to take over completely then we will be collectively throwing ourselves into a very unhealthy imbalance. Traditional societies knew that the youthful spirit must always be tempered by the wisdom of age. This is why they valued their young and old equally, because both had vital contributions to make. We seem to have lost sight of this balance.

We must remember, what is good for the economy - for commerce - is not necessarily what is good for us as human beings. The two things do not go hand in hand. And it could well be that what is good for the economy is what is bad for us. We are human beings, not numbers and commodities.

We created the system of commerce to serve us. And now we serve it. It is not human, and its wisdom is not human. In living by the standards of an inhuman system, we are ourselves becoming inhuman.

It is time we began to look once more within our society and within ourselves to rediscover our humanity.

So what can we do?

We must first recognise the deeper causes of our problems. We are in an imbalance:

Limited < ----------------------------------------------------------------- > Expansive

The solution is to shift our point of balance.

Practically this means looking at the ways in which the expansive mindset is manifesting in our lives and our society. It means moving away from 'global' toward 'local'; from 'youth' toward 'elder'; from 'excess' toward 'restraint.' It doesn't mean throwing ourselves into an opposite imbalance. Our task is to find a healthy equilibrium, tempering one with the other.

Let's look at how we are treating our old people. Are we involving them in our lives? Are we keeping them alert and vital by giving them their place within society?

Let's look at our own approach to aging. Are we going to become wise old people who have something to offer as old people? Or are we going to become young people in old bodies, striving to cling on to something that we should have relinquished long ago? Are we going to accept that society needs its old people to be old, and to give all of the gifts that only the old can give - wisdom, maturity - and are we going to look forward to being able to one day give these gifts ourselves? Or are we going to live in denial and become old people who have nothing to offer but a creaky immaturity that they should have long since outgrown?

Let's look at the people we place on pedestals - our heroes - and ask why we have put them there. Do they represent the best in us? Are they heroes of commerce, or heroes of humanity?

Q. How do we revive "local"?
A. By setting limitations 

Whilst it is tempting to look outside and to be caught up in all of the exotic distractions that the rest of the world has to offer, we must always balance this fascination with an equal interest in what surrounds us. In fact, if we care about our surroundings then they must always take priority over anywhere else. Local must come first.

For this to happen we must be prepared to tear our gaze away from the heavens. The view may not be quite as exotic, but once we readjust the rewards will be great.

Local celebrities in favour of national or international. Local artists in favour of international artists. Local shops rather than multinational superstores. Local musicians. Local farmers. Local bakers. Local butchers. And so on.

Let's think about how we view our local area. Are we proud of it? Let's encourage those that make it big to stay in the community and to invest their talents in it, to help it grow and regain its sense of worth. We do this by instilling value and respect for their locality into the hearts of our young people. Because it is they who will grow up to be the heroes of the future. 

Don't move, stay where you are. Find value in your local area, and send the message that it is worth valuing by staying put. Have you ever had someone believe in you? Often, when someone believes in us we are much more motivated to be the best we can be. Their belief gives us the power to grow. It is the same with our local areas. Without our belief they will deteriorate and become shadows of what they could be. They need us to believe in them.

Investigate the riches that surround you. Build your heaven right here, instead of looking for it elsewhere. It may not be much now - we may find it a depressing place to be - but we put the work in so that those that follow us, our children, don't have to put up with the same conditions.

Act with local in mind. Ask, how can I be of benefit to my local community? Am I currently adding to it, or taking away from it?

The first step is to change the way we think, and the way we talk. When we begin to think of limitation in a more positive light - and when this thought is translated into the things that we are saying - then we can begin to affect change on a wider scale.

As always, we begin with ourselves. 

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