Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A Meditation on Boundaries

Sujata Massey

I-Screen by Dhruvi Acharya

"Breaking Boundaries" is an expression that is usually meant to show freedom--crashing through a fence that prohibits expression. But there's another side to boundaries.

And that's "Holding Boundaries."

The first boundary I recall is a low brick wall that marked the edge of the front garden of my first home in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. At age four, I played close to the wall, and this was how I visited other children in the neighborhood: playing on the sides of the garden walls. 

Once, my younger sister breached the wall to toddle after a fire engine. She was safely retrieved, yet my mother’s panicked reaction to my sister’s boundary violation is the second part of the memory. 


This week, a huge fence is going up in Washington D.C., supposed protection for those participating in President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. This physical barrier can deter some behaviors, but it cannot do anything to erase the danger we face.


I started feeling this way last winter, when doctors around the world pleaded for people to wear face masks. Across the country, mask adherence is spotty, and a number of people say that not wearing a mask is a defense of their personal freedom. Last week, when seditionists stormed the US Capitol, members of Congress escaped and together for hours in a small, undisclosed location. Six Republican House members refused to wear masks. Three members who wore masks caught COVID-19, quite possibly from one of these people. Because the boundary wasn’t observed by everyone, it didn’t work.


“Holding boundaries” is an expression used in counseling practice and self-help books and sometimes causes an eye roll. For me, it means following my gut, rather than giving in to pressure. Holding a boundary might mean saying “Sorry, I can’t come to that party,” or “I don’t want to get involved in that argument,” or as simple “no.” 


The U.S. Constitution is packed with laws, and garnished with amendments, that are meant to protect the country from corrupt government and ensure its stability and articulate the rights of citizens. However, none of it works if people don't pay attention to it. Vice President Michael Pence knows that President Trump did all but throw him to a mob, yet he won’t exercise the Constitution’s 25th amendment, which could remove a president unfit for duty. And what of the 147 Republican lawmakers who won't accept the certified results of the 2020 election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Who won't accept...the law? 


The challenge with boundaries is that you can't yoke people into them. We hold them because of the people we are. 


About nineteen years ago, I bought a painting called I-Screen by an Indian woman painter, Dhruvi Acharya, who had a one-woman show in Baltimore. I remember settling down on a bench and staring at the vast amount of huge, psychologically paintings, looking for the one that spoke to me most. 

It was a big red painting, 50 inches square, that couldn't stop call me. In I-Screen, A mature woman with a peaceful expression appears to be defending herself against a stream of angry words coming from a younger woman. The screen in her hand is a simple vegetable grater.


As years passed and life tested me, I began to understand the story within the picture. The loving elder lets the words come at her, but she protects herself. She reminds me to stay true to myself. 


  1. So interesting, Sujata. And once again our minds are tracking along together. I too have been thinking about boundaries in connection with the recent crimes against our country. My musings have been about testing boundaries. Young children do that as part of growing up, beginning at about two or three. All parents have seen this. The two or three year old toddles away from mama, looks back over his shoulder to see if she is watching, and keeps going to see how far he can go before mama puts a check on what he's doing. In a couple of years, the four or five year old will continue to test what he can get away with. As long as mama and papa let him get away with naughty behavior, he keeps upping the ante. This, it seems to me defines Trump's behavior while in office. Step by step, he did more and more unexpected and eventually unprecedented things. His enablers in his administration and in his party let him get away with them. The Republicans in the Senate refused to impose a boundary on him. Ever. Today they may. Now that he has staged a coup against the incoming President, which mercifully seems to have failed. Trunp said it of himself--that he could shoot and kill a person on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. He has done the political equivalent of just that. Now with one voice we have to tell this President, who has the character structure of a two-year-old, NO! And send him to his room. For good!

  2. I can see why Dhruvi's painting appealed to you as much as it did, Sujata. When I first came to your post I paused to blow it up in size and reflect on its appeal. We have a lot of time these days for doing that sort of introspection.