“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”—Albert Einstein.
The limit for which Einstein is probably best known is that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. He proved that it makes no difference whether a car is speeding in our direction or parked at the side of the road; the light from its headlights is travelling at exactly the speed of light when it reaches us. Based on this limit, Einstein was able to make deductions that have changed the way the rest of us look at the universe, even if we don’t understand the process that he went through in order to develop his insights.
Perhaps his most consequential insight is that the square of the speed of light, C, is a constant (E = mc2) that specifies the equivalent energy available in matter. He recognized that mass and energy are two states, which, like ice and water, can change from one to the other under the right conditions.
However, the physical characteristics of light, energy and matter, and the forms they can take, are not the limits with which we must deal in our daily lives. We don’t need the preeminent scientific mind of our era to tell us that we feel limited in ways that are important to us. And we may well doubt that accepting those personal limitations can open a path to greater freedom for us.
It may feel unbelievable that possibilities escape us when we ignore our limitations; and that the cost of our delusions is that we lose the freedom to take a different road.
I think it is worth emphasizing that Einstein did more that point out that our limits constrain us. He also says that accepting those constraints is a way to not be bound by them. And since Einstein opened a window that allowed us to see beyond the limitations of Newtonian physics–which is bound to the limitations of linear, invariable time—his observations about a greater potential in life deserves our attention.
His observation corresponds with a recognition that our world is permeated by the sacred. And since our ordinary lives in this world are sacred, it follows that it is our responsibility to care for this world and for the beings who live here.
We don’t have to look far afield to see the limitations that plague our world and the lives of beings in it. It is difficult not to feel discouraged by the poverty, sickness and premature death that surround us and by the systemic patterns of unfeeling inequality that are deeply stitched into the fabric of our society. The ice sheets in Greenland, the Artic and the Antarctic are spitting out skyscraper-sized ice cubes into the world’s oceans. We have entered an irreversible path that is already flooding many of the world’s population centers. A rise in sea level that is now measured in inches will become feet within an historical timeframe; and while the pace of this countdown is not yet certain, the disappearance of the icecaps is already inevitable.
There doesn’t appear to be an upper limit (like Einstein’s maximum speed of light) to the damage human behavior is inflicting on Mother Earth and on the quality of life for beings who depend on Her for their health and freedom. How can it not be deeply discouraging to realize that it is already too late for any change we could make in our behavior as individuals, or even as a society, to reverse the basic path we are now on?
But let’s try on Einstein’s proposition to see if it fits. Accepting the limitations on our individual capacity to influence our world is not the same as throwing up our hands in despair. Our global problems are like an 18-wheeler plunging down a snaking road with no brakes, but that is not a reason to conclude that it doesn’t matter what we ourselves do.
It does matter how we behave. It matters deeply that our hearts remain open and that we accept this reality in which we live. Only then can we go beyond the limitations of our own discouragement, beyond our fear and indifference, and thereby transcend our attempts to deny the truth about what we have done to our world.
Only then can we be a wild flower in which eternity blooms, and the grain of sand on the shore of this beautiful planet onto which the ocean waves fall.