by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
I recently read Wendell Berry’s essay, Faustian Economics, about environmental depletion stemming from the economically-driven myth of limitlessness. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Berry is seventy six year old poet farmer in Kentucky who happens to be a global authority on the environmental movement.
It got me thinking. A sense of limitlessness is a symptom of mania or psychosis in mental health. Additionally, in my line of work it’s accepted that acting-out children are requesting limits via their behavior and calm down once they are given a predictable environment with defined boundaries and expectations.
The limits themselves need to be fair, explained in advance and consistently applied. If limits seem arbitrary or unequal, people (children and adults) balk and rebel. Witness what happens when one child gets a bigger cookie than his brother.
Self imposed limits, the litmus test of maturity and sanity, could be translated as a “minor or temporary loss for greater gain.” In other words, self imposed limits or boundaries are a trade off or an exchange. The exchange could be personal safety for minor inconvenience, such a wearing a seatbelt while in a car. Or the exchange could be contributing to society in exchange for money, such as donating to a charity. (By the way, contribution is an often overlooked psychological need, and is just as vital as feeling loved. )
Healthy limits create a sense of personal safety and social contribution. For instance, kids who are expected to do chores around the house (a behavioral boundary or limit) have the mental health benefit of knowing that their work contributes to the flow and function of the household. Thus they become quite literally important.
During WWII Americans planted victory gardens to increase their self-sustaining ability. Having an action in response to the fuel and food shortages gave people a sense of contribution and connection.
Given that we adults are former children; perhaps we are speeding/spending/digging/burning our way to a future fuel-supply reckoning in order to hurry up and get those sorely needed boundaries in place. Maybe having fuel coupons and energy shortages will serve to calm us down on some deep level.
I believe that the environmental/sustainability movement should point out the good news, and hopefully win over more hearts and minds to early adopting of energy conservation: Limits make us feel safe, make our behavior feel significant in the larger world and ultimately make us connected to one another. Limits make us more content human beings in a way that new/more/bigger stuff simply cannot.
For those of you who are fans of the Berry, he’s coming to town! http://www.lectures.org/season/special_events.php?id=274
(Wondering what the heck this blog post has to do with trauma? Uh…it’s a streach I’ll admit.)
- Sustainability’s Faustian Dilemma (blogs.hbr.org)