Limitations & Existence

  • May 28, 2021 |
  • 9:03 am |
  • Ed Nissen, MSW, LCSW

What can exist without limitations? Can we determine who we are if we have no boundaries? How can we define a sense of self if we have no edges? How can we experience if there is nothing to contain us? Without having a beginning and an end to us, how can we have a story?

Jordan Peterson says of personality, “There will be times when your personality will be optimally matched for the current environment.” Our personality serves to simplify the wildly complex world in a way we can more easily comprehend. Due to such complexities of the world, there are a seemingly infinite amount of personalities that emerge as individuals. This result is a particular set of traits that deal with the complexities of the world based on preferences, interests, and the ease in which we can learn and execute certain skillsets that are best suited for a relatively small range of problems. People deal better with certain kinds of people or situations than they do with others based on their personality. This, in part, explains why people gravitate towards certain environments. Some situations are preferable to others because they can navigate them with optimal efficiency. Even if it is not necessarily preferable, if they are interested enough in the person or situation, they will likely be more inclined to engage in that particular environment because it optimally matches their interests.

This notion speaks to an idea about our attitudes toward the things that define us, for better or worse. People generally detest being put into a box; their disdain labels usually are not hard to notice. This is a valid experience, for it is in our resistance to conformity that we begin to establish ourselves as individuals. Nevertheless, one might say this process is the act of breaking away from too much order so that the individual can explore a wider range of identities. Therefore, this end of the spectrum holds too many restrictions for us to declare for ourselves who we are. However, on the other end of the spectrum lies the world of infinite possibilities and, ultimately, promise. However, this infinite world is chaotic, holding not only promise but threat as well.

It might be universally and unconsciously agreed upon that freedom is one of the ideas we value above everything else. What is more, is that one might believe that freedom should absolutely always be had. I suspect that people rarely consider the burden of getting to make every decision for themselves. One can imagine that they would quickly exhaust every bit of their time and energy attempting to carry out this absolute freedom. Imagine the high school freshman taking on the impossible task of deciding what her career will be. To her, there is an overwhelmingly limitless amount of possibilities and no capacity in which she could ever begin to zero in on a few specific ideas from those possibilities, or at least begin to eliminate some of them. Then there is the notion of the gift of parenthood. Without having children, we cannot live out the parental aspects of ourselves in the most meaningful way. Although we may substitute children with dogs or cats, those aspects can never be fully realized. There is a sense of loneliness that comes with such a life.

We dread a life of being completely alone, for it is the limitless vastness of our minds in which we lose ourselves into the nothingness. With no one to share aspects of ourselves, we can have no true sense of self. When it comes to barriers in our lives, humans typically default to seeing them as suffocating constrictions. While this is, in fact, the case at times, such barriers provide just enough order to make the chaotic world of innumerable paths a little more manageable. It is nice not to have to decide for ourselves every single choice in life. The paralyzing nature of unlimited choices prevents us from establishing a sense of self.

Absolute freedom also means absolute responsibility and absolute deliberation. The thing is, people do not want to have to choose everything for themselves. GPS map apps make decisions for most drivers. It will tell you where to turn, when to turn, and when you have arrived. Diet and exercise apps are the same way. Some people simply want someone or something else to tell them what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat, as well as what, when, and how much to exercise. It is convenient, primarily because it gives us more time to devote to other, more interesting aspects of our lives that we actually enjoy, or at least prefer, to do for ourselves. My point here is that with absolute freedom comes total responsibility. Quite frankly, the world, particularly our lives, is too complicated to manage every aspect of every situation personally.

The young person trying to figure out his direction in life is better suited to make progress when placed within environments, actual or hypothetical, which necessarily provide a particular and relatively small number of experiences that position him to define his interests and preferences. It is not until it squeezes him into a narrow set of options that he can begin to gain clarity into his direction in life. At the very least, he can begin to set a trajectory for himself.

For a myriad of reasons, people value being understood. I believe one of these reasons is so they can understand themselves. Another reason is so they can project their inner, unconscious experience onto others, that is, generally engaging in social interactions. This provides the necessary medium for interactions with other humans; the sharing of human experiences is the antidote for loneliness. Experiences are entirely subjective. We interpret events in our lives based on our individual beliefs, and the meaning we place on those events shape our experiences of them. However, a purely subjective view does not provide a complete view of ourselves. We need objectivity. As objective as we may try to be, the intrinsic nature of our experiences as humans is, nevertheless, always subjective. My point is that, just as ancient humans became self-conscious, it was, perhaps, not until he shared the experience of being self-conscious with another human )who was also experiencing self-consciousness) that humans truly become conscious. By having others affirm or refute our thoughts and experiences (regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant that may be), we can truly begin to gain a more complete view of ourselves. This helps us to declare to ourselves who we are. This declarative experience serves to bring into view a more precise direction to go, pointing us closer to an optimal path. A path whose limitations necessarily provides the outlet for the definite expression of at least some aspects of the seemingly infinite vastness of our inner world, in which we would otherwise lose ourselves to the nothingness that swallows our identity. The procedural nature in which we, through a narrow medium, express ourselves prevents the paralysis of the self. That is, connections with others provide an environment that holds particular sets of limitations that allow us to define a sense of self. We need limitations to exist.

Compatible relationships are the environments in which people bring particular sets of limitations that allow some of the most important aspects of oneself to exist. People have terms and conditions with relationships with other people. This is most commonly known as boundaries. Boundaries are synonymous with limits, and it is within the limits of relationships that certain aspects of oneself can be showcased or lived out. Without the appropriate set of limitations, some aspects of ourselves can never truly be realized. For instance, in a committed, mutually exclusive romantic relationship, the terms and conditions two people bring are based on preferences and interests, which, when optimally matched, allow the expression and realization of fundamental aspects of each other. Perhaps, the limitations of the relationship, which include not having sex with others, creates an optimal environment for each other to more fully express particular aspects of their intimacy and sexuality that are most meaningful to them. If one or both of them were to step outside the set of limitations by having an affair, the prior set of limitations has been compromised, making it difficult or impossible for those most important aspects to exist. My marriage is where my wife brings a particular set of limitations that allows some of my most important aspects to manifest. It is in those moments I can truly declare for myself that I am a husband. Husband is one of my favorite roles that define who I am.

The same can be said of parenthood. As a father, particular aspects of myself never got to exist until my daughter was born. Although I knew I wanted to be a father, I only had a general idea of what that experience could be. Fathering my daughter has revealed many aspects of myself that I would have otherwise never known. Fatherhood has allowed some of the deeply important aspects of myself to exist. If I were to abandon her, that would be to step outside the set of limitations that make me a father, and those aspects of myself would no longer be able to exist. The actions that the responsibility of fatherhood requires of me limit many freedoms, yet the experience I gain with my relationship with her inspires me to place so many freedoms aside gladly. Perhaps, some of those aspects of myself merely resided in my unconscious until my daughter came along, making me conscious of them. It is in that awakening that I can declare, with conviction, that I am a father.

The same can be applied to all kinds of relationships. Friendships can offer sets of limitations that allow certain aspects of ourselves to be lived out that we may not get with our spouse. We see this in the workforce as well. Here, there is a much more clearly defined set of limitations, such as company policies, state laws, federal regulations, ethics governance, among other variables. We operate with the terms and conditions that provide products and services that keep us from going too far and give us a precise set of limits design to put forth exactly what is needed.

Perhaps, one thing more than anything else with which our attitude towards limitations could help discover a sense of purpose. People often struggle with feeling a meaningful sense of purpose. In fact, we rarely find ourselves satisfied at all with the level of our sense of purpose. As daunting of a task as selecting a college major, career path, or developing meaningful relationships is, the path of discovering purpose is even more arduous. The solution to developing a deepened sense of self is to, initially, although seemingly counterintuitive, begin with limiting the scope with which we seek the answers. Just as our ancestors became conscious through the shared experiential, exploratory discovery of their unconscious significance, so must we look to our interactions with those around us. Within the limitations of our interactions with others, we can eliminate many unnecessary and mundane distractions that delay the discoveries of our deeper purposes and reduce the size of our figurative fields of view to a much more manageable one. One with an optimal concentration of necessary limitations is at a considerable advantage to arriving at a deepened sense of purpose. Lastly, it is through this vacillation from the extreme, orderly, and restricting end to the spectrum to the chaotic vast in which holds all possibilities, and back to the optimal middle that we come to understand the depths and gifts of both worlds, which then positions us with a new understanding. This new understanding can only go one way, and that is whatever way that has, at least in modern times, never been traveled. The revolutionary is one who has become intimately familiar with both order and chaos, as well as the polarizing effects they have. The revolutionary heroes are the ones who, having had discovered their purpose, take their deepened understating of their limitations and change the world around them with it.