If you want to learn everything about someone, just become friends with them on facebook. The details often go beyond their birthday, city of birth, and even mother’s maiden name – things you would need to pull of an identity theft. You may know when they are out of town, their religious and political beliefs, and far more.
Not long ago many people would sit down at a meal and pause for a moment to give thanks, perhaps making the sign of the cross with their hands. Today those hands might raise their phone, posting a picture on facebook. Yes, you’ll even know what someone had for breakfast if you are their “friend”.
We live in a world without boundaries. And that may be the one true thing that has gone horribly wrong amid a sea of mistakes we are making as we navigate a stormy, changing world.
The death of Prince has highlighted the great strength that can come from creating a safe world, a place apart where inner strength can flourish. As a great student of African-American history, his purpleness undoubtedly read and re-read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, perhaps the greatest work on the concept of creating a boundary between yourself and the world for your own internal peace.
Yet it’s more than than creating a space for the odd or awkward to flourish and more than a place where the fountain of true art can spring forth.
The lack of boundaries between personal and public life is a staple of celebrity gossip and paparazzi chases for a good reason. We expect the people in our life to be “authentic” – to keep it 100% and totally real. You can’t do that with boundaries where you have a private space, but that doesn’t register. The salacious details of a personal life are actually required if we are going to enjoy music, film, or art of any kind. Art, we demand, has to be made in public. There is no place for this today among both the famous and the common.
The inability to create boundaries is even more stark in public service. We are entering an election season where the two likely candidates, Clinton and Trump, polar opposites.
Clinton famously keeps to herself, having drawn an inner resolve from her boundaries for many years as she stayed very, very tough as she navigated a male world. A woman of her generation could not have done anything else. With a new generation demanding openness, she comes off as aloof and arrogant. It’s hard to relate to her precisely because of the same mechanism that allowed her to get where she is today. Is it any wonder we haven’t had a woman president yet?
Trump, on the other hand, has no boundaries. He says whatever he think regardless of whether it is true or not – apparently believing his own BS. Nevermind that most of what he says has no bearing on reality at all. His followers like him because of the ring of truth that they find more important than truth itself. The lack of boundaries or any introspection is mistaken for authenticity. Nevermind that it’s an act perfected into habit by years of celebrity status – Trump appears more real than reality itself.
The first casualty of our lack of boundaries is the genuine individualism that lies at the heart of the American experience. Ultimately, however, our social and political life suffers as well because we don’t know how to respond to a changing world.
Where people might have grown up around people “just like us” they are now in contact with many who have had different experiences. Without decent boundaries respect becomes nearly impossible and “different” becomes a threat. Everything is a blur between the personal and the social and everyone who dares act outside of the norm is indecent.
As a people, America was once very different. Rugged Individualism came from our resolve and our ability to live side by side with people we didn’t necessarily like. Both our personal strength and our open culture were defined by boundaries – separations between public and private where both could flourish.
Of course, it wasn’t always perfect and those who were “different” weren’t allowed to express themselves in public. When that “difference” was something as unchangeable as the color of their skin something had to give. We realized there has to be a place for public expression of all kinds, and the experience has been transforming.
But that does not mean that there is no place for appropriate boundaries between the self and the social, the inner and the outer. If anything, it should be obvious that Respect as a core value is only more important as we live closer together.
The boundaries between public and private have been demolished in the belief that we would be more free as a people. “Authenticity” has become a watchword, reaching far beyond simple transparency. If only everyone was their true self, the thinking goes, there would be no more hate or hurt, no more power or pain for those who happen to be “different”.
Yet it doesn’t exactly work that way. There is still a need for boundaries. Boundaries which establish a place for inner strength to flourish. Boundaries which protect inner fragility from lashing out at the new and different as a threat. Boundaries which mark the difference between opinion and fact.
The lack of boundaries has not made us free but left us wandering in the wilderness. Respect can do more than measure the distance between us – it can, and must, help us to establish the right boundaries where the self can truly flourish.