Recovering the gifts of human finitude.
Summer is a time portal. Every July at the local ice cream counter I hear a child chirp a request that echoes something of my own from earlier innocence: “Dad, I’d like the super-size whippy dip, dunked in fudge, caramel, all the fixings. Trust me, I can handle it.”
The magic of anticipating a supreme level of sugary joy never fails to bring a smile. Kids generally don’t appreciate the value of limits. Most if not all of what is great in a child’s mind is something huge, more, whatever that alluring curiosity is beyond the parental boundary. Limits are something we learn to respect, typically by experiencing the consequences of exceeding them.
Civilizational progress, for all its apparent sophistication, operates rather perplexingly by a similar naïveté. In the last century, the developed world has come to assume that the perfect is yet attainable—the perfect life, the perfect rhythms, the perfect balance of productivity and peace, perfect happiness—if only we try the latest tool, get invited to more of the right rooms, experience more variety, attain 5G. Somehow we seem bent on ignoring the trade-offs that recur every time a new expansion is achieved. We have all these time-saving devices, and yet we feel we have less time. Communication has never been freer, and yet we’ve forgotten how to listen. We are more aware of all the injustices that swirl around us, and yet all we seem to know to do is express outrage as the latest vehicle for defining the self.
While there are many ways to interpret the markers of “progress” over the last millennium, one fairly steady line stretching east along the x axis is the gradual displacement of bodies. Sure, we still feel a need to sustain our corporeal forms the way one would care for a machine—keeping them fed, giving them the necessary rest and exercise. But those at the steering wheel of our global drive toward economic and technological advancement seem to have assumed that the human body is ancillary to the real goals at hand. The very container for our creatureliness is the latest casualty in Tolkien’s long defeat.
And so this year of death and disease has offered, in a tragically revealing way, a severe mercy of course correction. Many of us have been reminded of our nature as those who taste and smell and laugh and sing, best pursued in the physical company of others. Those who work with their hands have regained public honour. There is a fresh curiosity around the beauty that blooms when we pare down our commitments and apply a rule of life, submitting ourselves to a bounded set of loves, a place, a single ultimate good. Givenness, and all that such a worldview could implicate, is daring to re-enter our vocabulary.
This issue is reaching your mailbox at a time when we are all returning to some form of pre-pandemic normalcy of movement and togetherness, chastened, of course, by the shock of precarity and a year in seclusion. What might Genesis 1–3 teach us yet? What will the newfound recognition of ourselves as limited in space and time, energy and emotion do to the modern impulse to go, go, go and seek more, more, more? How will our app designers and urban planners, theories of social change, and our own reset priorities reflect this newfound appreciation of our creatureliness, where embodiment need not be a hurdle to overcome, but the very yeast for flourishing itself?
Image: Humanity by Isabelle Healy.Subscribe