“Show me slowly what I only know the limits of…”Leonard Cohen, “Dance Me To The End Of Love”
Limits are a strange, essential force within our lives. Most of us prefer not to examine them too closely; like a hundred dollar bill, if someone gives you one it is often best to simply try to pass it on as quickly and quietly as possible.
But like counterfeit money, limits can frequently give more than they get1. They are an essential tool to build understanding. Once you have limits, you can begin to map what is inside those limits. In absence of limits, it is impossible to map anything.
Map (v): to create relational understanding. See Create.
Let’s step away from metaphor for a moment. In cartography, the process of mapping is one of using a given perspective or question to make sense of a set of data that includes a spatial component. Areas are defined by boundaries (or concentrations), and boundaries are defined by a process of repeatedly asking “true, or false?” regarding a given set of requirements.
A given point is either within a boundary or not; New Jersey is either within New York, or it’s not. Otherwise – without discrete places – there’s no need for a map. A map, therefore, is a relational understanding between areas defined by limits.
Within the realm of metaphor, limits form the boundaries around concepts, properties, desires, and needs.
Create (v): to map between memory and unknown. See Map, Unknown.
When these limits are mapped in such a way as to discover connections or adjacencies, the result is philosophy or science. When these limits are mapped through personality and symbol, the result is a narrative. So a narrative can be understood as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits. (Remember that – you’ll need it later.)
This is interesting because, although many people think in terms of narrative, people commonly talk about not being defined by their limitations. It is an inspiring idea, but not always a practical one. Without limits, there would be no reason for growth. Sometimes you must directly address your limitations.
Of course, limitations are not necessarily fixed. They are frequently an attribute of a specific set of conditions. But to the extent that you must expend energy addressing those limitations, you are at least temporarily defined by or through them.
Therefore it is often more useful to ask how you would like to be defined in relation to limitations. And in order to come to an answer, you must understand what limits represent.
Unknown (n): the first thing to establish in a system. See System.
Remember the idea of a narrative as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits? I say that because limits form the space between the known and unknown, the possibility for duality, the dynamic tension of differences. (Just try creating a good narrative without differences.)
Limits represent the potential for a thing to exist on its discrete own. Limits give identity and form to that which we would not otherwise recognize as unique. At the most basic level, limits give us the ability to understand one thing by juxtaposing it against another thing to discover what the first thing is not.
Light is defined as not-dark; night is not-day; spring is absence of winter; and death rises from the end of life. Humans seem to love this idea of juxtaposition. Duality is a very old story, one we tell about boundaries – about limits. It fits neatly alongside our entrenched love of patterns, and yields a cross-cultural penchant for narratives that display patterns of things understood in contrast.
System (n): framework composed out of entropy. Perfect or imperfect map of cause and effect. See Map.
Today, though we play with the idea of escaping the old mythologies, our modern world is built on boundaries and limits more than ever. In much of the code that surrounds our daily activities, everything is either a 0 or a 1, true or false. It is, literally, binary. It is a system made possible by the limits between 0 and 1, true and false. Limits create the framework upon which a world may be built.
Now, after all of this – have I still failed to convince you to appreciate limits? It’s true, I am biased; I was busy convincing myself, the case decided before the evidence was in. One of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” (though I prefer the version sung by Madeleine Peyroux).
It is a romance crafted entirely of limits: a binary hide-and-seek between lyrics, across boundaries – things hinted, secrets revealed, knowledge concealed, and underneath it all a keen appreciation for the space between opposites. So if none of my other cases ring true, consider this: without the limit between Self and Other, we would have no good love stories.
Of course, love stories are also about bridging boundaries, finding the gaps in the limits – but that’s another story, because it exceeds this story’s limits.
1 Disclaimer: to whatever federal agency may be reading this, I do not condone nor conduct money laundering or counterfeiting. I have my limits.