The sign promises “Unlimited income.” If I would like to have unlimited income, I should call the number on the sign. I presume, then, that someone would answer the phone and arrange for me to have unlimited income. Hmm.
But, what is unlimited income? If there was such a thing as unlimited income, you would have thought that Donald Trump would have figured it out by now. But, nope, it’s the person or people who have put up this plywood sign on a suburban thoroughfare.
And I think to myself, who would believe this sign? Human beings apparently have a universal and unending vulnerability to Snake Oil Salesmen.
You remember: The carpetbaggers of the ol’ West, the con artists of The Great Depression – they would hold up the bottle of magic elixir and promise you that one spoonful each day would cure you of gout, depression, nervous disorders, constipation, headaches, ulcers, rheumatism, and biting your fingernails. It could also be rubbed into the skin for relief of muscle ache or back ache. Used as a shampoo. Clean your grout. Remove gum and grass stains from laundry. Increase your gas mileage.
All for the price of one dollar.
It reminds me of my favorite ‘commercial’ from the glory days of Saturday Night Live, when Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase argued back and forth, “It’s a floor wax” … “No, it’s a desert topping.” And Dan Akroyd pops into the camera and announces, “It’s both!”
Today’s carpetbaggers don’t hawk bottles of elixirs; they seduce us with an idea: Limits are illusions. There are no such things as limits. Which is to say there are no limits.
A colleague gives me an 8-page paper entitled, “You can be, do, and have anything you want.” There it is again. No limits. If I wanted to be a wombat, I could. If I wanted to fly, I could. To hell with the Laws of Aerodynamics. If I wanted to have a mega-hit reality TV show entitled, “Watching Steven write his column in his underwear,” then I could.
It’s all about the right thought. In fact, the movement seducing my colleague is called “New Thought.” Enlightenment. If we’re smart enough, all limits evaporate. Or, better put, we convince ourselves there never were any limits.
To say this teaching is actually false is the beginning and the end of my good manners. The idea of limitlessness is an ontological absurdity. Worse, it’s a teaching that is guaranteed to make you at once vacuous and miserable.
I have a different message for myself and the world: finitude. Want to be fully and authentically human? Embrace finitude. Want to live creatively and happily? Acknowledge limits.
If I run long enough, I’ll fall down. Can I run much farther than I think I can? Of course! Can I run forever? Nope. If I try, I’ll fall down. It’s one of my limits.
Someday I’ll lay down and not get back up. I’ll die. And no amount of positive thinking is going to change that. Mortality is one of my limits.
It’s not true that I can be, do, or have anything I want. Are there possibilities for me beyond my imagination? Absolutely! Does it behoove me to push myself beyond the self-imposed limits of my imagination? Agreed! But that doesn’t mean I can be, do, or have anything.
A Buddhist parable says, “He who has many friends has no friends.” Yep. Again, limits. If everyone is my best friend, then I don’t have a best friend. There is only so much of me to go around.
Finitude is the best argument for marital monogamy. If I try to love a second woman the way I love my beloved I find that I love neither woman as much. I have limits.
Any significant spirituality must begin with the confession “I am not God.” That fact is a limit. And, for me, a relief.
The modern-day propagation of “limitlessness” is an invitation to dead-end delusion and harried hubris. A tragic ego-inflation. Conversely, embracing limits is the very heartbeat of true humility.
Limits will not be vanquished, out-smarted or denied. However, limits can be transcended. But the only way to transcend limits is to first embrace them. Which is why I don’t merely disagree with New Thought; I’m openly hostile.
The idea of limitlessness is a nefarious seduction, no matter what the felt motive of its proponents.
(Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)