The Human Condition:

On Personal Boundaries – June 6, 2021

Teasing with apple

We all have them, boundaries—or frontiers, if you prefer—the edges of our souls, the demarcations of our “comfort zone,” the limits to which we will go, where beyond lie trespass and possibly danger.

We build these boundaries over a lifetime. Sometimes it’s by choice: we have a bad experience and say, “Not going there, never again.” Sometimes the boundary is set by habit: “I’ve never been there, but it looks dangerous, or demeaning, or ‘just not my style.’ ” And sometimes the territory beyond the boundary, the frontier, is someplace that simply lies outside our imagination, it’s not part of the image of ourselves and the world that we have built up as “the right and proper me.” Or we view it from the vantage point of imagination and decide, “That doesn’t look right.”

We build these boundaries—establish these frontiers—like an engineer building a fortress wall. Or, if you prefer a softer metaphor, like a gardener defining the region of conscious cultivation as separate from the wild lands outside, and maybe there’s a wall, too. As I say, everyone does this, because it’s part of living and deciding who we are, what we will be, which conditions of living we will accept and which, based on that personal image and experience, we reject.

And everything goes well until life rises up and smacks us in the face. It may be a new job, where we are required to expand our skills or handle crises we’ve never encountered before. Or it could be a change in life direction, like going off to college or joining the army, suddenly becoming rich or just as suddenly becoming poor. But for each of us who have the capacity, that smack in the face is sure to come when we fall in love. Then we must, simultaneously, cross our own boundaries and enter into another person’s frontiers.

It’s all well and good to imagine your “perfect woman” or “ideal man,” or your “soul mate.” But those are creations of your own imagination. They want the same things you want, share your interests and dislikes, conform to your vision of yourself, and never question or make demands about the things—thoughts, activities, sacred beliefs—you hold dear. Your soul mate is a fiction: a boundless, smooth orb that is congruent with your idea of self, with appropriate gender alterations. You don’t have to deal with your perfect woman or ideal man. You don’t have to cross any boundaries.

And the reverse is true. You don’t have to let that ideal person cross your frontiers and invade your home territory, the center of yourself, because that fictitious person already lives there, in your imagination. And just as it’s scary to go and try new things you’ve never wanted to or even imagined experiencing, because the object of your growing affection loves them or demands them, so it’s scary to let a real person cross your frontiers and learn about—and try to deal with—the real you, your likes, fears, foibles, habits, and sacred beliefs.

This is when life comes up and smacks you in the face. If you can, you then lower your defenses, cross the frontier, and try to deal with a real person with real wants and needs. Maybe the differences are too great, the new territory too unknown, or too dangerous, or just too bizarre for you to enter and be comfortable. And then maybe the object of your affection, in her or his real self, becomes less desirable to you, less possible for you to be with. Not that they simply fail in being your ideal, or that they become something opposite, all sharp corners and bad angles, nothing like congruent at all. But just some of the ground you have to cover—the experiences you have to embrace and pursue in order to be with that person—are simply impossible for you. And then you learn from that encounter, adjust your definition of boundaries, and move on.

And perhaps your boundaries or frontiers are so wide, your walls so high, that no one but the ideal soul mate can get through, because they are already inside. Then, I am sorry to say, you will never have what you want. You will be alone in your garden, safe in your castle, and never know the terrors of opening up to someone unknown and the joys of finding that you can expand.

But if you can venture outside your comfort zone, take risks, cross boundaries, and in some cases redefine yourself, you will find the happiness of discovering that you are not alone in the universe, that someone else can share your joys and burdens, and you can walk the road of life together.

That’s the cold, sober reality, and you must make the best of it.