Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.





Look up. Reach out.

A student of mine once used the phrase, “the world inside my phone”, to describe the allure of technology. Like gravity, it attracts us with its promise of stimulation, information, affirmation and control. Inside the phone, we can adjust what we see, who we friend, how things look, how we respond, and most importantly, how the world views us. It can be as compulsive as a very powerful drug.

There’s a subway station in Washington where big crowds are often waiting for trains late in the evening. Sometimes when I’m there I just want to shout, “Look up!” because it seems that the majority of people, whether they are alone or with others, are staring down at their phones, lost in that world.Smartphone

I’m probably showing my age, but it troubles me to see this. One reason is physical safety – inattention on a crowded subway platform could lead to accidents, injury or becoming a victim of crime. But there’s also the issue of simple human interaction. Everyone laments those who ignore the actual people they’re with in favor of the device. What about the fact of our decreasing tolerance for interacting with anyone outside of our preferred group, whatever that might be?

Marc J. Dunkelman writes about this trend in his new book, The Vanishing Neighbor. He sees us losing relationships with those in our communities that he refers to as the “middle ring” – people who aren’t as close and familiar to us as family and friends, but are perhaps more than just acquaintances. In other words, people like our neighbors. We keep our inner ring close, and we pay attention to the distant outer ring via social media, but we often neglect the people living right next door, because we don’t have to acknowledge them or depend on them anymore. We can buy almost anything on-line, we can stare at our phones instead of making eye contact as we pass someone on the street, flip through our texts as we stand next to a co-worker in the elevator, maybe we don’t even order from a real person in a restaurant. We can keep all our interactions limited to people we deem to be like us. There’s an app that lets us decide where to shop based on politics. Another app steers us away from “sketchy” people and places. It’s all about control.

But there’s something lost by giving up the richness and randomness, and yes, even the danger, of everyday encounters: The chat with the neighbor in the street, saying hello to someone in an elevator, even arguing with the person who doesn’t agree with you. Of course it’s more comfortable to surround ourselves with the safe and familiar, the good and the beautiful. But just as Georges Braque said that “art is meant to disturb,” life should force us to question, to confront, to improve, to grow, to see inequity and injustice and be motivated to change it, to see suffering and hurt and want to end it. If we stay in the world inside our phones, what are we not seeing?

IMG_0385Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, that this digital immersion scares me. Eggers’ fictional Circle is a company that combines all social media, and more, under one roof. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and virtually every app were integrated and controlled by one organization. As the main character becomes more caught up in her job at the Circle, she ultimately sacrifices her family, her old friends, her privacy and her solitude because she so desperately wants to be a part of this far-reaching entity.


Our reality probably won’t mimic this fiction, but there are enough similarities already to give us pause. Before we become the tools of our tools (to paraphrase Thoreau), let’s not forget how to use the powerful apps we were born with. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Step outside the circle. Be surprised.




What it means to be happy humans

Today I attended a discussion on the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” It was a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to be human, how the study of humanities serves us, and what it means to put the humanities into practice in daily life.

One of the many topics that came up was reading, and the importance of reading in helping us develop as human beings. One of the panelists commented that “reading is the vehicle for getting us into narrative,” and that narratives (stories) teach us about human behavior, which can be the basis for discussions about society.

This reminded me of something that my children’s elementary school principal used to say: “Reading is the way in, writing is the way out.” Although she never specified in and out of what, I have some ideas on it in the context of what I heard today: Reading is the way in to your mind, to your inner self, to a deeper understanding of life. Writing (and other forms of expression, especially speaking) is the way out to the world, out to society, out of yourself and into your community.

So to “do” humanities involves engagement in the world. But that’s another area that troubled some of today’s panelists – what is true engagement, true connection, in today’s world? Technology allows us to “talk” all the time, but does it help us listen, truly listen, to others? Certainly we’ve seen that the decline of listening has made us less tolerant of others’ opinions, and less likely to change our own.

Part of that issue is the shrinking of people’s attention spans. We communicate in ever more truncated “language”, we engage in shorter and shorter bursts of activity, and our brains are changing accordingly. Many of us would be hard-pressed to sit and listen to someone for any length of time. In order to be fully engaged as citizens of the world and members of our communities do we need to reverse that trend? Should we be re-training our brains to be able to pay attention and focus for longer periods? There was talk today of the “slow reading” movement – literally an attempt to get people to “move away from the computer” for a while and sit with a book, reading slowly and carefully, even re-reading favorite texts.

Modern life has been made easier by technology and by many of the societal changes that have occurred; but I don’t think that people are really much happier than they were two or three generations ago. Martin Seligman and others who study happiness have developed a three-part model of what happiness is. It includes positive emotion (the kind that comes from having pleasurable experiences), engagement (being in the “flow”, fully absorbed by some activity), and meaning. Tweeting and texting and multi-tasking might provide moments of pleasure, but I doubt that they can generate that feeling of flow that comes with full engagement, let alone supply meaning to our lives.

Engagement and meaning are more likely to be found in reading a book that touches something in your soul; listening to music that moves you; seeing a piece of art or a play that provokes ideas or controversy; writing a letter or a journal; or learning something new. The ways that we assimilate those experiences and make them a part of us opens the door for a deeper connection with others and something larger than ourselves. That’s what makes us happy.

So maybe the question is, are the humanities the key to more happiness in life?