A couple of years ago, I was part of an advertising campaign centered on the concept of limitlessness. We have no limits. We are boundless. There is no cap on our potential. With the camera on, I was asked to give a soundbite on the topic, and I couldn’t do it. This was one of the few occasions in which my two vocations – runner and philosopher – came directly into conflict. I have theoretical qualms about the idea of being limitless. I could not make that claim.
Sports and Limits
The language of limitlessness is not new to athletics, or really that surprising. Sports are about overcoming boundaries. We — as individual runners — press our own limits, real or perceived. We — as a community of runners — stand on the shoulders of runners from previous generations and surpass the standards they have set. For example, the four-minute mile was once believed to be the outer limit of human physiological capacity. Then Roger Bannister broke it. Now the four-minute mark is broken by milers regularly, and even periodically by talented high schoolers. The very best runners now aim to break 3:50 in the mile, and Hicham El Guerrouj holds the world record at 3:43. The original limit was shattered. Shattering it has been a collective enterprise.
The notion of limitlessness appears in numerous sports-marketing campaigns. Athletes often declare that they will not place limits on their own potential. Moreover, the closest person we have to a sage in running — Eliud Kipchoge — is known for the catchphrase “no human is limited.” We often speak in this way.
So, what is the problem?
There is an essay entitled “Faustian Economics,” by Wendell Berry (1). To describe our current rates of economic consumption, waste, and greed, Berry draws on the German legend of Faust. As the legend goes, Faust was a scholar who made a deal with the devil. He traded his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Faust received these things at great cost: He lost his self-possession, and his life was cut short.
From this legend, we learn the concept of a Faustian bargain. The Faustian bargain is trading long-term considerations for short-term satisfactions. Berry explains our treatment of the environment in these terms. He describes “prodigal extravagance,” “assumed limitlessness,” and a pattern of consuming too many resources without regard for the future (1). We ignore our limits to our peril because, over the long-term, there are consequences. Realistically, over the short-term, there are consequences, too. By overstepping limits in one area of life, we are apt to neglect responsibilities in others.
I recently re-read Berry’s essay with my Environmental Ethics class. As I read about the precariousness of overstepping limits, I was reminded of the limitless rhetoric that pervades our sport. And I wondered what kinds of Faustian bargains we are making.
In general, I assume that those who apply the concept of limitlessness do not literally mean that we are entirely without limits. For example, I do not know anyone who supposes that, one day, we will run a zero-minute mile. Likely, they mean to capture something softer, like this: “You are wrong about where your biological potential lies, and you can probably squeeze better performances out of yourself. How much better? Who knows? Maybe a lot better! Keep trying.” But that slogan does not fit neatly on a t-shirt.
Even so, there are compromises made in trying to overstep limits, and these compromises should be made explicit in a sport where limit-pushing is our standard mode of being. For example, we often see runners enter our sport, throw down a ton of miles, become ascendent figures on the racing scene, and then disappear shortly after. They have made a kind of Faustian bargain, and it costs them healthy running over the long-term.
So, for the sake of balancing out the assertions of limitlessness we hear frequently in the world of sport, I would like to contend that we do, in fact, have limits. At times, we should press these limits, as we do in athletics, because this allows us to get the best out of ourselves, to build confidence, and to learn, in a more fine-grained way, what our capabilities are. But we should also be aware of these limits and respect them. We have biological limits — meaning we are bodily creatures, involving matter and physical restraints. We also have cultural limits — meaning we have friendships, family ties, and “self-restraints implied by neighborliness (1).”
Here Are Reasons Why Our Limits Matter:
1. You may want to use your legs when you are old.
In the present, you can run an unsustainable number of miles, lift extra weights, and pay undue attention to the sport. At first, it may even benefit you. You might run faster or further than you ever have. But eventually, your Faustian bargain will catch up with you. You will find yourself in a hole. Hopefully the hole is not so deep that you can’t claw your way out of it.
There are limits to the amount of training we can absorb, and our bodies require rest — lots of it. We can either be annoyed by this fact — that we are embodied beings who need to step away from hard work to refuel, sleep, and recover — or we can find a way to make peace with our physical restraints as part of the rhythm of training.
2. Some of our limits are the people we love.
Often, when we speak of “not putting limits on our potential,” I think the kinds of limits we have in mind are the imaginative and the physical. We are not going to underestimate what we can achieve, and we are going to physically work in such a way that we can accomplish something extraordinary. We intend to free ourselves from these self-imposed limits. But if you think about it, many of the limits in our own lives are the people we love, to whom we have obligations.
For example, Berry points out that, in friendship, there are “implied restraints of faithfulness and loyalty (1).” Friendships take time and attention. We also have obligations to our families and neighbors, and we have obligations as community members and citizens. Usually when I am unable to train at the level I want to, it is not my body that limits me. Rather, the responsibilities I have to my family and to my students limit me. These are happy, humanizing limits.
On these grounds, when we make claims about being limitless in our athletic pursuits, these claims are forgetful of the ties that bind us, whether or not we intend for this to be the case. When we are ‘all in’ on our athletic performances — not willing to put a cap on our potential — our families and communities are the first limit we step over.
3. We are humans.
My greatest worry is the one I am having the hardest time being able to articulate, but it’s something like this: It often seems like we talk about surpassing human limits without really caring about what a human is, or about how to live a rich life and run beautiful races within the limitations we have. Berry frames the worry this way: He calls his readers to think about limits in the way an artist does. An artist does not generally focus on extension — requesting a bigger canvas. Rather, she fills in the canvas that she has and makes something beautiful. In the same way, we either can frame our participation in sports as being exclusively about extension — surpassing limits, and systematically accomplishing greater feats. Or we can create something beautiful within the limits we have. This would demand that we think about sports and life in richer, broader ways than the rhetoric of limitlessness affords us.
More specifically, if we frame sports solely in terms of the overcoming of limits, this positions us to be inhospitable to those who cannot participate in sports under those terms. It positions us poorly to notice beauty and value in sports beyond breaking barriers. It makes the athlete disposable after her days of peak performance are over. Moreover, limitlessness can motivate a desire for performance at any cost — be that through shoe technologies that distort natural limits, increasingly with every carbon-plated iteration of racing flats, through doping, or by other inappropriate means of extension.
Breaking limits is, itself, a limited way of thinking about sport.
Certainly, breaking through limits — real or perceived — is an important part of running, and it is a part of running that is edifying and exciting. But I think we do a disservice to the sport if we speak in these terms without discussions of Faustian bargains and the consequences of truly acting unlimited.
Call for Comments
- What self-imposed limits have you been able to break through?
- Where do you think the physical limits of human potential lie?
- To use Wendell Berry and Sabrina Little’s word, what are the parameters of your personal “canvas” that you try to make as beautiful as possible?
- Wendell Berry (2008) Faustian Economics. Harper’s Magazine.