Limits are for Breaking – and Braking

Yesterday I was equally struck by two seemingly opposing ideas from different sources. One challenged me to blow off the limits life has imposed on me; and the other, to deliberately impose limits on my life.

The first was the latest This American Life podcast, actually an introduction of a new podcast called Invisibilia. The episode – “Batman” –  is about a now-middle-aged-man named Daniel who has been blind from childhood, who hikes, bikes, and climbs trees. He can do these things, he and his mother explain, because from the time he was small, she allowed him to explore the world free from the typical limits one might expect a mother to put on her blind son. Sure, he had his share of accidents and crashes, but by challenging the limits society placed on him as a blind person, he grew capable and resilient.

The second was a Zen Habits blog post by Leo Babauta, “In Praise of Limits.” In our consumer society, the abundance of choices available to us every day can be overwhelming, Babauta writes. Purposely limiting ourselves – imposing rules such as only eating during certain hours of the day, only spending an allotted amount of time per day online – can actually make our lives richer and fuller.

Blow off the limits and exceed your own and everyone else’s expectations. Impose limits so that you can live a focused, purposeful life. Both/and. The skill comes in identifying which limits are keeping you down, and what other limits might help set you free.


  1. I listened to the Batman episode last week. Very interesting!

    Do you think the difference is mostly about limits placed on you by other people vs. limits you place upon yourself?

    • I don’t think it’s exactly that; at least in my experience, some of the limits I’ve most needed to blow off have been put there by myself. Then again, did I actually come up with those limits, or was I just believing something someone else – or society – had foisted on me?

      But I’d say that if I believe something and then limit myself based on that, I am ultimately responsible for putting that limit on my life. (Example – I am a woman – other voices have told me that women cannot do x or y – therefore I will limit myself to not exploring those options.)

      I’m also trying to think if there is a time when I’d say it can be good to live under a limit someone else has placed on me. Maybe a doctor’s orders? But ultimately, the doctor or any other expert or voice of authority in my life can only advise, and it is up to me to impose limits on my life based on that advice. (I’m setting aside authoritarian regimes and others who impose limits by force, and also assuming we are talking about legal adults who are not under the guardianship of someone else.)

      Of course we also have laws that place external limits on us, and for the most part I’d say it’s good to live under those externally-placed limits. But (being a product of my western individual-centered mindset), I think it’s always good to think through these laws, and in some cases to speak out or practice civil disobedience against laws a person considers unjust.

      Thinking out loud, rambling on!

      • I was thinking out loud in my comment, too, because five minutes after I sent it I thought of about half a dozen exceptions, mostly on the order of the ones you’ve mentioned.

        Your ramblings reminded me of a thought pretzel that I sometimes wrestle with: Do religious people ever truly recognize an authority above their own conscience/judgement? For example, an Evangelical friend once told me that he appreciated having an authority outside of himself to rely on for making decisions (arguing why the Bible should be the ultimate authority for Christians). I asked him, “But how did you come to that conclusion? Is the Bible your ultimate authority if you had to use your own judgement to set it up as an authority?” He squirmed out of the conversation at that point, but I’d love to hear from others who might have a better answer. I had a similar discussion with a Catholic acquaintance when I asked her what she would do if the teachings of the Church conflicted with her conscience. She said that she knew the Church would never do something like that, which of course was a very unsatisfying answer. 🙂

        Now I’m rambling…

        On the topic of podcasts, have you listened to the new Invisibilia podcast? I believe it’s an offshoot of Radiolab. Today on my “commute” I listened to an episode about a man whom everyone thought was a vegetable, and he essentially was for a few years. Then he started waking up and had complete use of his mental faculties, but no control of his body…so no way of communicating with anyone. He ran up against some huge limits, both internal and external. One of the hosts perfectly described his progress in this way: “Wherever you are standing in your life, prepare to be lapped.” Really good story (also interesting podcast).

        • Sorry I’m slow but I do get to things eventually!

          Good thought pretzel – makes me thirsty though. I think I’d need a good beer to go with it. It gets at that larger question – ultimately, how can I truly “know” anything? Everything is filtered through my perceptions; it feels like I am always in the way. And how do I know that what you call blue is really the same thing I call blue? The best thing I have come up with is just to keep asking the questions, keep sending out soundings and be kind and generous and very very patient, and get used to uncertainty.

          I keep hearing about the particular podcast episode you mentioned – going to have to add it to my list!

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