Warning: The following essay contains words like “truth” and “ichthyological.” Viewer discretion is advised.
Let’s talk about boundaries. You have them, whether you realize it or not. All human-shaped humans do. If you’ve ever been angry – or as Charles Dickens might say, “vexed” – it’s probably because someone or something has crossed one of those boundaries.
Boundaries can be physical, emotional, ideological, even ichthyological (assuming of course you’re a fish.)
I’d like to share an unusual encounter that happened to me on the bus some time ago that I think illustrates this idea of boundaries. You may find this story amusing, possibly even shocking.
As you read the entire thing, I ask only that you take a moment to consider your response. Knee-jerk reactions are all too easy – and quite often, devoid of real insight.
I was sitting on the bus, lost as usual in an audio book (“Out of Your Mind” by Alan Watts, since you didn’t ask) when I felt a presence in the seat next to me. I turned to see a dapper young specimen of the male gender staring at me intently, a smile playing at his lips.
I smiled back in greeting, as one does in such situations, and it was at that moment that I realized his arm was around the back of the seat. Not on my shoulders exactly, but close enough. It was obvious, even to me, what was happening – he was interested in me and was hoping to pursue that to it’s… logical conclusion shall we say.
The feeling that ran through me was one of alarm – not danger, but discomfort.
Let me clarify an important point here: My reaction was not homophobia – being bisexual myself makes such a response even more idiotic than it normally is. No dear reader, this was a boundary violation.
You see, I’m a person who values personal space. I have a narrow zone surrounding my person that I believe to be sacrosanct and inviolable except under very specific circumstances. Those who wish to enter that space must be invited. People who like to stand inches away and talk at me (not “to” me you’ll note), will quickly discover that I’ve spent the last few minutes putting distance between us, and in some cases, even a piece of furniture if the other person doesn’t get the hint.
You can imagine that this situation put my entire being on red alert. I don’t for a moment believe that there was anything dangerous or nefarious occurring here. This young man simply did not understand the importance of giving people their personal space.
At this point you’re wondering how I responded. In the past I would simply have silently backed away, or sat there, swallowing my discomfort and refusing to make eye contact, hoping that I could psychically shoo this person away somehow. That was not possible in this case, so I did something I’ve never done before – I spoke up.
I explained politely but firmly that as flattering as it might be, I was uncomfortable with someone I don’t know being that close to me.
The reaction was as immediate as it was contrite. The young man leaned back and apologized profusely. After a few minutes of conversation, we found ourselves laughing at what had happened. From an awkward misunderstanding came the beginnings of a possible friendship.
It would have been easy to classify this as an “assault.” The truth is, women encounter this every single day, most often with very different results. Sadly, the violations are so commonplace now (and men are so willingly oblivious to it) that women have an entirely justified distrust of any such interaction.
We all have boundaries, and often it can be difficult to know what they are when we encounter each other in the world.
You won’t always be able to avoid awkward situations. There will be occasions where your words or actions will cross other people’s boundaries. Be true to yourself, but also mindful and respectful of their reactions. On the other hand, if it’s your boundaries that are being violated, be mindful of the intention of the other person’s words or actions.
The point of all this rambling is simple enough: Awareness of other’s boundaries and the ability to maintain our own (without regressing into hate and nastiness) is, in reality, a function of empathy.
And empathy is something we need now more than ever.