In the natural world, the edge is where the action is. The zone between two ecosystemswater and land, or field and forest—is where the greatest diversity and productivity are found, as well as the most predation. This is fitting, as the Greek word for this region, an ecotone, means tension. But it’s characterized by a fertility that biologists call the edge effect.
In human affairs, the ecotone between the life you have and the life you want, between your status quo and your potential, is equally fruitful if not fitful, full of passion and suffering, productivity and predation. The exercise of pushing beyond your assumed limits into this zone of intensity and virility, in search of fulfillment and new possibilities, is rightfully referred to by sociologists as edgework.
It’s a kind of personal anarchy, an affirmative revolt against your own stuckness, as well as the entrapments and over-determined nature of everyday life (they don’t call it the “beaten” path for nothing). It’s not loss of control, though, but an acute sort of self-control, says Jeff Ferrell, author of Making Trouble. It’s self-control in place of control by others, whether church and state or job and gender, and it’s based on the understanding that if you don’t control yourself, somebody else will.
“It’s self-control for the sake of self-determination,” Ferrell says. “Self-control in the interest of holding on to your life while letting go of it. Self-control that gets you hooked on the autonomy of self-invention. It’s a defiant disavowal of secondhand living. It’s the refusal to live in a cage and have food thrown in.”
In fact, the primary evolutionary advantage of these behaviors comes down to exploration. Some members of any tribe, especially in new environments, have to investigate what’s dangerous and what’s not, and test the limits so that others will know what they are and either avoid them or exercise caution in approaching them. The explorer and aviator Charles Lindbergh rightly asked, “What civilization was not founded on adventure? Our earliest records tell of biting the apple and baiting the dragon, regardless of hardship or danger, and from this, perhaps, progress and civilization developed.”
Thus the importance of supporting the dragon-baiters, both in society and in ourselves. Of keeping alive the role of edgewalker, outlier, provocateur, and imagineer, the one who stands outside the shop window looking in and questioning; who lives in the liminal zone between civilized and wild, conformity and rebellion; who dives beneath the surface of life to its depths.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilized” society is defined by having five qualities: beauty, truth, art, peace and adventure, and that it preserves its vitality only as long as “it is nerved by the vigour to adventure beyond the safeties of the past. Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” And the same goes for its civilians.