The Boundaries of Independence

As my children have grown and started to leave home, I find myself conflicted by the idea of Independence. Of course I want them to be independent, to go off on their own, make their own choices and even, to be frank, to require less or none of my support and effort. Its not that I’m not willing to give them support and effort, but more that just as they need to be independent, my wife and I would like fewer requirements. We, too, would like a bit more independence.

On the other hand, we love our children, and want to know what is going on in their lives. We want to be involved, still. My oldest child is about to graduate from college, and I wish he was close to us, where we could see how he is doing, listen to his problems and challenges, hear how he is doing at work.

In a different sense I have similar issues with almost everyone I know. To one extent or another I’m curious about what makes others tick and want to understand them. I occasionally see people doing something I think is wrong, and have the impulse to step in and fix it — and sometimes that is even the right thing to do. Does anyone doubt that we should help the elderly person who has fallen on the sidewalk?

The challenge, of course, is finding the right boundaries between parents and children, between friends or neighbors and even between strangers — where and when its OK to intervene, when “tough love” should be used, when to let the other person figure it out on his own and even when to accept the help from others that we, perhaps, don’t need.

This is, perhaps, rather obvious. All of us must navigate these issues in our every day lives. How we are perceived by our neighbors and how we, in turn, perceive our neighbors is often determined by how well we navigate these relationships. Not surprisingly, many of the teachings we find in the gospel are directly concerned with how we manage these relationships.

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An interesting case for these neighbor to neighbor and stranger to stranger relationships can be seen at sporting events. As I have discussed before, it is easy to be drawn into the emotion of the game, caught up rooting for your team, hanging on each tense moment of a match, silent amid tens of thousands, waiting for the stunning release when the tension is finally broken.

Oddly enough, there is really little of importance to determine which team a fan chooses to support. While sports teams often are situated in a particular city and might be said to represent that city, it is rare that the players are actually from that city in any way. While for fans the choice of a team is sometimes influenced by geography, for players its some combination of money and opportunity—athletes almost always play for the team that has chosen them and that gives them the most money. In the end, there is little substance in the fan’s choice of a team.

Sporting events have their boundaries also, both those that are acknowledge by fans, and those that may be based in ethics and righteousness. You may not like what another fan did or said, but its wrong to throw your drink at them. While the home team fans might boo the fans for the visitors, its wrong to harass them till they feel like they have to leave.

Personally, I think its wrong to cross the line between rooting for your own team and rooting against the other—such attitudes are, I believe, the root of bad behavior by fans. Its one thing to yell “Go Portugal” and another to scream “Germany Stinks” (except no one says “stinks” anymore). The problem comes when we allow ourselves to suggest or think that others are beneath us, less than us, or that they “stink.” After all, aren’t these statements just a cheap way for fans, who aren’t even actually playing in the game, to feel better about themselves?

Perhaps saying such things once or twice in the heat of the moment doesn’t matter much. But I have to wonder what the long-term impact is on us when we say these things. When does the oft-repeated mantra become belief? How many times does it take before repeated hate is internalized? How often can we shake off the excited epithet about another without internalizing it?

So that’s my boundary—I don’t cheer against others, only for my teams, which I have chosen, when it gets right down to it, in a mostly arbitrary fashion. But somehow, in our minds, this choice then creates a new boundary, and we are now part of “the Tribe” or “Red Sox Nation” or whatever the fans of your team are called. Now its us versus them, and, too often, it can lead to war.

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While among friends and neighbors, or between sports teams, these boundaries may seem small, perhaps trivial or at least individual, and fluid — subject to change at whim and based on our choices and behaviors, when boundaries reach the level of government they are often not so at all. Governments often proscribe behaviors that are unacceptable and make distinctions between groups, creating boundaries between people. And governments even create geographic boundaries — lines that usually exist only on maps. But unlike the boundaries between individuals or between groups of fans, the boundaries that governments draw are usually much less fluid; much harder to change.

As a youth, I remember hearing stories (I have no idea if they were fictional or not) of buildings and even family houses that straddled boundary lines,  with the kitchen in one city and the living room in another. Given the way that at least some county borders were drawn in the U.S. as it was developing, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that some farms ended up straddling a border.

While the implications of governmental, geographic boundaries are often substantial, the lines themselves are fictions of a sort. They often can’t be seen, unless a government has taken a lot of time, trouble and expense to mark them. They had to be drawn by some human being at some point, created out of thin air to satisfy some human need, as often as not the result of ambition or greed. As far as I can tell, it is rare for anyone to claim that they were established by God (except for that whole ‘manifest destiny’ thing of 150 years ago, and territorial claims in the Middle East). More importantly, the boundaries do not themselves determine anything about those who live on one side or another—people and societies do that.

The success of the United States, I believe, is due in part to how we have handled boundaries. We have benefited from large oceans that gave us a buffer from much of the world, and allowed us to be very open, accepting most who desired to come live here. We have tolerated separate groups, based on ethnicity, language and religion, until they could assimilate, changing both us and them. For most of our history our boundaries haven’t been much of a barrier.

I am of the opinion that geographic boundaries are a kind of necessary evil, something that we should treat with caution. They remind me of Robert Frost’s poem of nearly 100 years ago, Mending Wall:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

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Of course there are good reasons for boundaries. I have set boundaries for my children as they have grown, and I also have tried to tear down many of the boundaries between us, especially now that I have two children who are adults. I sometimes wish there was more space between my neighbors and I, but most other times I’m very glad that I live in an apartment building and have neighbors who are close, who I can greed in the elevator and on the street.

I’m very much a fan of sports teams, but I only want a small little stone wall between me and the fans of other teams—one which either of us can step over. Are you a Red Sox Fan? Come, let us go to the game together. I’ll root for the Yankees, and you for the Sox, and neither of us against the other. We’ll have a grand time, enjoy the rivalry and part as friends, ignoring the boundary between us.

Two hundred and thirty six years ago, the colonies that are now the United States found that the boundaries between us and our motherland didn’t work any more. It took a horrible war to resolve those boundaries both geographic and legal. Over time those boundaries have changed, and now these two countries are today allies and friends. Boundaries remain, but many have been removed. Like me and my grown children, we are both independent and dependent on each other, and on everyone else in this shrinking world.

So my wish for this U. S. Independence Day is that we think long and hard about the boundaries around us. That we examine how independent and dependent we are on each other. For my wish is that instead of acting the part of the Selfish Giant, we listen to the words of Lady Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

6 comments for “The Boundaries of Independence

  1. July 5, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I went to a soccer game last Saturday where David Beckham’s team was playing against the local team. Oh, man. The fans booed every single thing he ever did, amazing or not-so-amazing. Instead of just being annoyed by it or joining in, I did the opposite: I started cheering against the crowd. I don’t think I made a difference, but I felt so bad for the guy. If he wasn’t so famous, no one would have cared that much. And he actually had beautiful skills, so why boo that?

    As for the political boundaries thing, I am all for globalization and a post-modern world. I can’t wait for the day that we don’t need boundaries. I can’t wait to say, “I’m a citizen of the world and there are no special passports anymore.”

  2. July 5, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Michelle, we are on the same page on both of those ideas.

    Booing a player for playing well is kind of lame.

  3. July 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    I like the idea that the boundaries we have inherited and that we create for ourselves must be reexamined from time to time. I see this most clearly with my growing children whose capacities and needs are changing so quickly. It’s much better to allow the boundaries I set for them as a parent to stretch and grow so that they don’t feel the need to break through them away from me. One day they’ll be independent, but until they are strong enough, I’m going to use those boundaries to protect them.

  4. July 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Nice thoughts on boundaries, Kent. I recently read (and reviewed) Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. One of his themes is that humans are naturally “groupish,” and that our strong propensity to divide up into contrasting, even competing, teams or groups is just part of being human. But it is certainly worth the effort to keep from getting carried away in our groupishness to the point of needlessly harming others.

  5. christine
    July 6, 2012 at 10:07 am

    the boundaries of independence which THE USA put up for themselves on July 4 a long time ago mean other countries which are STILL in the COmmonwealth do not require unaffordable constant restructuring of their health care system with…seemingly…indecisive results..

  6. July 6, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I don’t understand your point, Christine. Its my understanding that the countries in the Br. Commonwealth each chose their own healthcare systems separately. The UK has a different system from Canada’s system, which is different from that in Australia. Even if the U.S. had ended up in the commonwealth somehow, I don’t see how that means we would have done anything different regarding our healthcare system.

    I don’t see how healthcare has anything to do with this post — can you make the connection somehow?

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