Boundaries

Infinity is really hard to experience. Math works with it – in fact, math works with all sorts of different infinities – but everything we actually see has boundaries. We don’t even know if space is infinite – most probably it isn’t because we haven’t seen anything beyond twenty-nine billion light-years or so. From this, science actually estimates the size of the observable universe around 93 billion light-years.

On the other hand, physics tells us that these very distant objects are moving away very fast, and there’s no telling if and where they will stop. Math has a term for that, too: finite but unbounded.

A person has boundaries. They don’t necessarily start at our skin. If a stranger moves too close (to our taste), we feel violated. When we feel possessive about our belongings, we like putting them within our boundaries. Right now I’m sitting in a café, with my bag and coat on another chair across the table. If someone came and took – touched – them, I would feel violated. Does this make them part of me – do my boundaries extend to them across the table?

Not so long ago, my nine-year-old son used to be very possessive about his toys. This got him into fights with his sister and other kids. A psychologist told me that this is because the boundaries of his self are still forming, and it’s a completely healthy reaction. (I guessed as much, but it was reassuring to hear this from an expert. In fact, my son is still quite possessive about his stuff, but his reactions are much more refined.)

My boundaries extend beyond my loved ones, too. Although we’re apart for the day, I can’t help being aware of where they are and what they do right now.

Earlier on, I wrote I’d set up this blog as a refuge, to remain free from the ideologies that seem to preside over life around me. In a way, this is nothing but the protection of my personal boundaries.

Re-reading the posts in here, I’ve noticed that my texts fall in two categories: either I feel protective about my own freedom, and I’m defending it, or I’m expressing my moral outrage over a current issue. Sometimes both.

Boundaries are among those things that defeat the idea of absolute, unlimited freedom. Physically, I can do things that violate the personal boundaries of others (such as hitting them or taking things from them). Most of the time, I won’t do that: I recognize that my freedom ends where the person and the freedom of another starts. If I voluntarily refrain from trespassing these boundaries, it’s because I have – or I’d like to think I have – a thing called moral integrity.

So trivial. Wouldn’t even merit a post, right? Supposedly, this principle runs so deep that we can’t stop teaching our kids about it. Yet these boundaries are violated every day. It seems like adults remember it when they need to lecture their kids, but forget about it the moment they need to behave themselves.

Maybe the message gets through better when sung by Patricia Kaas.

It turns out that adults do remember very well. When they violate the boundaries of others, they do it in a tricky way: they convince themselves that the other is not really a person, or at least not a fully qualified one. And then they feel morally acquitted of that violation. I have already cited Umberto Eco’s essay on this.

I keep mentioning children: when they are on the receiving end of such violations, they are the most vulnerable. And the violation of their personal boundaries seems to be accepted in most circles – although, in principle, children’s rights are recognized in international treaties and protected in national laws.

So, here we go again: I’m angry about things I’ve read last week. (Our family therapist says I’m good at being angry. Somehow I’m not so proud of that.)

Let’s start with Pope Francis, because, being a Catholic, I feel a lot of pain at his remark (especially as otherwise I find it easy to agree with many things he says): when a father told him about the way he hits (smacks) his children, the Pope endorsed his approach by saying, “How beautiful! He knows the sense of dignity!”

My heart sinks. There is no dignity in hitting a child. Not for the child. Not for the parent. Whatever the child does, s/he remains a fully qualified person, with boundaries to respect. If I violate those, I teach the child one thing: that conflicts can have no peaceful resolution, or if one tries to solve things peacefully, it’s a sign of weakness.

Just for the record, corporal punishment is made a criminal offense in many civilized places. Even the laws of my country prohibit it altogether in schools and in the home. It’s sad that many people in law enforcement over here disagree with that, and because there is no express law on domestic violence, they try – and manage – to sabotage the law as best as they can.

Another ‘conservative’ figure – none other than Rand Paul – made a remark that is a classic example of denying personhood from children: “Parents own the children.” Paul said this in the vaccination controversy, but the destructive message goes way beyond that. It doesn’t really make a difference if he said it inadvertently.

Again for the record, I stand by scientific evidence, and I’m convinced that vaccination of my children and myself is my responsibility. If I fail to have my kids vaccinated, I fail to guard them from unnecessary harm, and even worse, I put other children – and adults – to risk.

From ‘pro-life’ circles, this view – that children can be spanked or they are ‘owned’ by parents – reeks of double standard. If you advocate a full ban on abortion because you think the fetus (or even a fertilized egg) qualifies as a full person, and doesn’t morally belong to the body of the mother – then why do you deny the same respect from the same person after s/he’s born?

I think of myself as ‘pro-life’ but I’m a strange kind of animal: I’d never fight abortion by banning it. I’d never fight abortion by passing judgment over those who suffer, perform, or advocate it. And I’m using the quotes because I question the motives of pronounced ‘pro-life’ activists – not because I think the term is meaningless. It isn’t, it’s “just” abused. I’d tell more about this but it will have to be another post.

One more thing: this behavior justifies my view on the ‘conservative’ obsession with large families and unlimited procreation: that these people care more for the unborn baby than the actual child. By the way, I strongly believe that the linked argument is a gross misinterpretation of the book of Genesis. I’m going to write another post on this, too.

I believe most violations against children aren’t committed consciously or in a planned manner. Not at first. That doesn’t make them any better, though: we have an instinct to forgive ourselves. We fabricate theories on how they deserve it. Most of these theories revolve around how they aren’t fully qualified persons. And then spanking becomes a planned protocol. That has nothing to do with faith, religion, conservativism, or any kind of value: it’s men giving in to their animal instincts.

On another note, we try teaching our kids to control their anger, and then we fail to control ours. Those who can control their anger at all times (I know they exist) deserve all my respect, however little it means.

You don’t need to hit a child to hurt. Things you say and the way you say them can be just as destructive. I know what I’m talking about. I’m an angry man. I have a hard time controlling my anger, and I can yell inconsistent things that hurt, and I regret them later. I’m working on controlling this, though, and I got much better over the years. I’m working on it because I don’t want to violate anyone’s personal boundaries, least of all those of my kids. I’m working on it because I believe I have – or at least I must have – moral integrity.

I apologize to my children for everything I’ve said when I lost my head in their presence. I apologize to everyone who had to see me lose my head and suffer my inconsistency.

Let me spell it out loud and clear: A child is a full person just like you and me. To use the Christian term: a child is the image of God just as much as an adult. A child deserves more protection than we do – because s/he’s defenseless, because s/he depends on us. There can be no dignity in hitting – or otherwise hurting – a child. Corporal punishment is always a crime, and any punishment is destructive.

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