On Limits

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As almost any four-year-old child could tell you, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a great big box, you’ll need to cut holes in it before you can make it into a house. Or as “the old man” (Lao Tsu) said, “Profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.”

“I” live in a strange little box that I call my body. Because it is open to all manner of flows passing through it – material, chemical, electrical, perceptive, descriptive, inferential, present – I am able to be alive in a way that seems wonderfully human. I also live inside the “skins” of my family, my Quaker meeting, my workplace, my city, my nation, my planet. These too are alive because someone or something always shows up and cuts holes in them.

In Silence: Our Eye on Eternity, Daniel Seeger describes the “[Quaker] practice of silence as a doorway to Truth” and explains the approach is “related to our understanding of the limitations of language and formal logic.” A defining feature of Quaker faith and practice is our insistence that experience is the foundation of all truth – equally relevant to matters that are practical, interpersonal, and spiritual. Seeger says Quakers try to avoid “legalism, lawyerliness, and literalism,” and try instead to remember, “[Words] follow experience. First we experience something; then we seek to describe it . . . all language deals with things ‘posthumously.’” (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 318, 1994) As Friends, we wait in expectant silence to be enlivened by the unnamable eternal mystery from which we flow – and from which all creation flows.

Any diagnosis of a living system is as much a creative act as it is an act of perception, and likely it is more so. As we presume to bring health and beauty into our world, we need to stay open to signs of unintended consequences from our well-intentioned prescriptions. When I was nine or ten, I overheard the swimming teacher’s assessment of me, “Her form is good, but she lacks stamina.” I took that to mean I lacked some vital organ, and I also took it as another excuse to avoid sports. After WWII, when our nation took stock of the world, US corporations determined that starving populations needed US agriculture. The Green Revolution saved millions of people from famine. But the destruction of ancient ecosystems by large-scale irrigation projects, the infusion of toxins into our biosphere by pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and the extinction of diverse native species by the domination of patented mono-crops are unintended costs that we all now are required to pay “posthumously.”

In 1647, George Fox wrote one of the most evocative lines in his journal: “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” This vision gave some resolution to a period of turmoil for Fox, when he had been experiencing “great temptations” and “inward suffering,” and when he “cried night and day” until God showed him “that the natures of those things which were hurtful without were within, in the hearts and minds of wicked men.” Then Fox saw further; he saw that those hurtful natures were within him as well. “And I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God.”

May we always remember that virtually all of creation hides in the darkness of our blind spots. Let us always be grateful for the holes that get ripped open in our tidy understandings. Let us find the precious time we need to wait expectantly for the Truth to set us free.