Limitlessness—Not Such a Good Thing After All?

The short version of what follows is that everything Mike Sacasas said last week about time could be said about place as well. Like time, place is also a moral question, and our relationship with place tends to be as disordered as our relationship with time. Perhaps, however, as Mike noted, our current crisis might be providing us with the opportunity to think more carefully and deeply about issues that we have been conveniently able to ignore—issues such as time and place. Finding ourselves suddenly thrown more fully than ever into the limitless, virtual space of the internet, we are having to think about the places and spaces in which we live our lives.

We might even be wondering if limitlessness is such a good thing after all.

For many years now, our modern culture has taught us to think of limits as bad and of limitlessness as good. Indeed, this way of thinking is so deeply embedded in the practices of our world that we often do not realize how fully we have embraced it. It is one of those “deeper normative notions and images which underlie” our day-to-day life, part of what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary of our age.

The prejudice in favor of limitlessness is why automobile manufacturers can assume that we will all recognize the unquestioned good that comes with buying a car that will give us “the limitless freedom of the road.” This is also why we expect to find exactly what we need when we go to the big box store—just the right style, just the right size, just the right color—and if the fifty-two variations on the floor or shelf don’t give us what we want, we become irate. After all, there should be no limit to our options. But if the big box store doesn’t have our item in stock, we know where to go to find it—that limitless world of the Internet that our digital devices open up to us.

Suddenly, we now live in this virtual world of endless space far more completely than ever before. We now live in a virtual space that has no limits, not just because it offers an endless array of consumer goods or because it spews out endless information, but because it has no borders. Truth is, we have been living in this space to a large extent for years, but now we are experiencing the limitlessness more than ever before, and we are struggling with it. I know I certainly am.

My life now has no form or structure except the form or structure I give it. In the past I think I have at least had some success in giving the Internet a place in my life, but also in placing that reality within the larger reality of embodied community, physical place, and a sense for what a day or a week is. Now the embodied community is absent, the physical building in which I used to work sits empty, and I live in a virtual space that has no limits with regard to either space or time.

I have yet to figure out how to live here.

What I know is that I need to accept responsibility for myself and set limits that will create manageable, potentially fruitful spaces in which to live and work. It falls on me to learn again what it means to get in touch with the limits of my body and to hold onto the natural rhythms of day and night, of weeks and seasons where time and place intersect. It falls to me to establish limits as to how many people I can serve and in what limited ways I can serve them. It falls to me to establish a schedule that includes when to go to bed or rise, when to dress, when to eat, when to “go to work,” what project to work on, and when to quit. It falls to me to learn again what doing a day’s work in a day’s time means.

Granted, some of these questions are about time, but they are also about place. Indeed, it is hard to separate the two. In the moment when I walk away from the digital device that serves as my gateway into virtual space, I move into a different, physically defined space: on my bike or on a walk, in the garden pulling weeds, at a piano keyboard, seated and writing an old-fashioned, hand-written note, in my bed with a good book (and not staring into yet another a screen), and so on.

It is clear to me that others are handling all this better than I. Many friends and family members have been working in virtual space for some time and have learned how to do it well. In some ways, their lives are continuing much less changed than my own. I will say, though, the people who have learned how to live well in the limitless space created by the Internet are people who created limits of their own well before the COVID 19 virus rolled in. I think of teachers who have been teaching online for some time and know their limits—limits of numbers of students, of phone calls, of readings, of grading processes, of their own bodies. I think of my daughter who has been doing her work as an interior designer online for years. She knows what project she is working on. She knows who her colleagues are and where her project is actually being constructed. She is at work on a specific, tangible, limited project, and she has learned how to limit herself and focus. In short, those who live well in virtual space learned some time ago how to erect fences or establish boundaries that mark out territories of fruitful labor.

I am having to learn again and daily, how to set limits that create spaces for fruitful labor—including, but not limited to, the space that my laptop opens up to me. I am learning again the wisdom that Wendell Berry has taught me before and is teaching me again. Berry recognizes the good role that limits rightly play in a flourishing, fruitful world, and he captures this truth in his Sabbath poems.

Enclosing the field within bounds
sets it apart from the boundless
of which it was, and is, a part, and places it within care.
The bounds of the field
bind the mind to it. A bride
adorned, the field now wears
the green veil of a season’s abounding.
Open the gate!
Open it wide, that time
and hunger may come in.
1979, IX

Berry asks us to do what we ought to have been doing all along: namely, embrace limits as good. After all, God created us embodied, limited creatures. Limit is fundamental to our flourishing. It is his wise will that we live within the limits he has deemed as good. Decades ago, our social structures and practices reinforced this biblical wisdom. More recently they have run counter to this wisdom, and now the virtual world in which we find ourselves immersed leaves it totally up to us to insist that this wisdom find expression in our lives. It now falls to us to create for ourselves those boundaries that place some small part of this wonderful world in our care, bind our minds and hearts to it, and in due time open the gate and invite the hungry to come in.

Dr. Richard Horner
Executive Director

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¹ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard UP, 2007) p. 171.
² Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (Counterpoint, 1997), p. 17.


Study Center Resources

The Director’s Class continued online this week. You can watch or listen here.

In the coming week, you can look for the both the last Director’s Class to be posted on Wednesday and the fourth and final lecture in the Timely Virtues series to be posted on Thursday.

From the archive: “What do Beauty and Desire have to do with Faith?” A lecture delivered by Dr. C. John Sommerville.


Recommended Reading

—  “A Living Memory” by Yishai Schwartz in Comment:

“The biblical concept of zekhira provides, I think, a much-needed corrective to the modern concept of memory. Today, many of us think of memories as interior experiences or passive mental states. They are internal thoughts to be enjoyed and savoured; or feared and repressed. But they make no demands, and we cannot owe them our loyalty. Insofar as our memories nag at us, they are usually a hindrance; we seek to be unencumbered by nostalgia, to freely make choices in the here and now. The past, it is said, is past.

Biblical memory rejects such thinking. It reminds us that the past exerts powerful moral forces—whether because of promises we have made, persons we have loved, or debt we owe. Those forces are to be respected and acted on. Memory, or more accurately zekhira, is the vessel for channelling that force.”

— “Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks about the coronavirus, his faith, and an unusual friendship:

“Collins later met a Methodist pastor, Sam MacMillan, who was ‘a very willing partner for me, tolerating my blasphemous questions and assuring me that if God was real there would be answers.’ It was MacMillan who introduced Collins to the work of C. S. Lewis, starting with Mere Christianity.

‘I realized in the very first two or three pages of that book that most of my objections against faith were utterly simplistic. They were arguments from a schoolboy. Here was an Oxford intellectual giant who had traveled the same path from atheism to faith, and had a way of describing why that made sense that was utterly disarming. It was also very upsetting. It was not the answer I was looking for.’ But it was, for Collins, the answer he eventually found, and at 27, he became a Christian.”

— Brad East on “Sacraments, Technology, and Streaming Worship in a Pandemic”:

“Jenson, a catholic Lutheran, sees in the liturgical communication of the gospel both the means and the content of the good news. For the gospel announces the incarnate God, who made himself available to his creatures in a vulnerable human body; who spoke and was spoken to; who touched and was touched; and who now, in and by the assembled members of his body, makes himself available in the most intimate manner to his beloved: being handled, carried, broken, shared, tasted, chewed, consumed. The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the gospel’s proclamation in sacramental worship are thus identical. In this case, the medium really is the message.”