I just had the fortune of rediscovering contra dancing this week. I was introduced to it years ago in Seattle, and I totally forgot how much fun it is during the last five years of tango and salsa dancing in Latin America. For those who don't know, contra dance is a folk dance, similar to square dancing, that is danced in lines of partners. There is a caller who calls out patterns of multiple figures (see right) with 64 beats. I'm impressed that even with all that structure it is both fun and liberating. What more, there always seems to be great live music. If you're curious I suggest you go check out your local scene. If you just want to understand a bit more: here are some examples of figures, here are some examples of patterns, and here's a video of the whole thing in action.
But this post is not about contra dancing. The reference to dancing is a not-so-subtle way for me to talk about one of my favorite philosophical themes: the interplay of freedom and limits.
These two forms of organizing life are familiar to all of us. We usually recognize them as being in direct opposition of one another. We clearly know when we are moving towards more freedom and we know when things are becoming increasingly limited. We may even feel a preference towards one or the other, as in: "Throw off the shackles we need more freedom in the world," or "What we need now is to reign in the various forces that are out of control in our world."
The first thing to recognize is that this "preference" is situational and contextual. As an exercise, I invite you to consider the provocative themes listed below, and as you read them pay attention to whether you believe there needs to be more freedom or more limits for each subject:
- Banking System
- Carbon Emissions
- Drug Policy
- International Trade
I anticipate that each point provokes a real reaction, perhaps a clear and practiced one. I also imagine that your feelings about freedom and limits become quickly mixed.
So we know these are real concepts and we also recognize that there is not a clear winner here. Both freedom and limits have their place in human society and they are here to stay.
A second thing we can learn about freedom and limits is that in their extremes they become destructive forces. Freedom in its extreme could lead to total dispersion of energy, chaos or war. Limits in their extreme lead us to control so absolute that life becomes static, absent of individuality and diversity. In both cases life verges on meaninglessness.
The third thing we can recognize is that the choice between freedom and limits is an illusion. They are part of one interdependent system, always defining and co-creating each other. This is similar to the fact that we can't have light without dark, mountains without valleys or joy without suffering. Recognizing the mutuality of the poles is a big leap in thinking in a society obsessed with being right or being the best. I call this paradigmatic shift from "either/or" thinking to "both/and" thinking, taking the third perspective. With the third perspective we see that we are not making a choice, but that situational and contextual shifts back and forth between the two is what makes it all interesting. It's not about which side is right or wrong, it's about how do we manage the tension between the two in the way that is more beneficial and less painful to everyone involved.
Let's bring this home by returning to dancing and play. When we look at contra dancing, tango or salsa (or soccer or football or chess for that matter) we see that it is the freedom to operate within a clearly defined set of limits that is the genesis of creativity. Every game played out between two teams is new story. There are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the known universe. Those adept at tango and salsa know that there are infinite possible dances. And the folk writing new 64 beat patterns for contra dance have been innovating constantly since the social barn dances of old.
If we look at life, we will see the same forces at play. The natural limits of the physical world and the chosen limits of culture are so prevalent that they are nearly invisible in our day-to-day lives, nonetheless it is the freedom that we find within these limits that make life rich and beautiful.
I'll conclude for now with a reminder that neither freedom nor limits are good nor bad, and neither one will ever "win." It is the unresolvable question itself that gives us dance, play and life. Let's not try to find an answer quite yet.