We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner.  My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like.  One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head.  They are dark and wooden.  My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose.  My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held.  His only response was “Well where is its legs?  If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.

As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together.  A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams.  A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you.  It helps you sort and categorize.  And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information.  Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening.  Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can.  And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.

And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary.  And sometimes we can even laugh about it.  Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society.  And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives.  Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize.  Rather small really.  You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world.  But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs?  Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic.  Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit.  Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.

All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something.  We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules.  It doesn’t make sense.  As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away.  Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough?  The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others?  I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions.  Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better.  I hate when older people get down on younger people.  As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy.  Is it easier than we had it?  Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.  The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it.  And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.  It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked.  This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created.  The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly.   Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages.  Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate.  Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “

“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas


35 thoughts on “Boundaries

    1. Thanks Pink. From an evolutionary standpoint I believe that it does all stem back to these rules for survival. Which is why indeed the reason our mind developed this categorization process makes complete sense, but it seems as though we aren’t exactly great at drawing these boundaries. Survival is often about playing it safe at the expense of what seem to be low probability gains. I think we have advanced to the point where we can be more thoughtful, we can calculate probabilities, and our survival isn’t in jeopardy as much as it used to be. But I guess our brains are still wired for that African Savanna to a large degree.

      And I do like your napkin holder theory! 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Mmmm, Swarn… many great questions! 🙂

    Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite films. A push-and-pull, an ebb-and-flow of boundaries and boundlessness! The constant movement (fight?) of stagnation versus creativity, ingenuity… ironically! 😉

    Your son’s puzzlement immediately reminded me of our house pets when I’d have on the huge TV-computer screen a butterfly or ladybug cursor. I would purposely move it all around the screen making the dog or cat go bonkers wanting to catch it. What was so hilarious is that when I’d move the insect quickly OFF THE SCREEN — as if it had flown off — our pet would run to the side or back of the screen just looking and looking for it. My daughter & son got the biggest kick out of our/my trickery! 😛

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “Is it easier than we had it? Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.”

    So true! Even if many things are physically easier, the experience of it is not. The emotional and psychological growth that our children go through in the process of their development is just as challenging as any other era. Meanwhile, they deserve our respect and our support.

    “I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.”

    So great that you could step back from explaining the world to your son and listen to him explain the world to you. Truly beautiful.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You have a budding scientist there, Swarn! It’s great to allow kids to explore and think for themselves. A much harder task, at least it was for me, is helping them navigate social systems without ostricizing themselves. I’m glad I’m on the other side of it with adult kids who turned out really great, before social media and iPhones put into every 3 year old’s hands. You’ve got your work cut out for you ,but I like your priorities 😉 ❤

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Indeed Bela I do worry about this brave new world, but I do think that I’m at least into it enough myself to know how to navigate it smartly. Ultimately though I know that my son is going to be a lot smarter than I will be about it at all, and there is no avoiding that it will be a part of his life. I see it simply as a mode of communication, and I still believe that if I teach my son kindness, respect, and critical thinking then these base skills are what is needed to navigate social media or what may be coming in the future to replace it!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I feel as if I’m reading something of a coded message here, Swarn, if only one sent to yourself? Forgive me, that’s rather forward, although blog writing can be an effective device for speaking to oneself one’s innermost thoughts, nonetheless, as many amongst us will have discovered. I suppose that to a great extent we’re all at the whim of some little inner calculator – that cranial homunculus – which incessantly weighs risk against reward, desire against aversion, and yet which largely remains blinded to its own conditioning. One of the persistent philosophical and spiritual questions is whether the human can live free of conditioning, or, perhaps better to say, ‘consciously of’ such conditioning. It begs the question of how much the mind wants to see of itself, and of its sub-conscious and conditioned predispositions. And I suppose that brings us back to the writing, and how helpful it can be in getting the mind to expose itself, to itself? On a closing note, then I must thank you not only for this intriguing piece, but also for the magnificent, yet barely disguised, double entendre – “truthsome spoke, yay.” – Zachry.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who spotted the (glaring) double entendre, professor. I’m rather presuming that our mutual good friend Swarn did, as otherwise the poor chap really is in trouble! 😉 [Swarn: best policy may be to maintain a noble silence on this issue.] Then again, professor, perhaps the subconscious can be a powerful ally, and one suspects it played no small part in Zola’s outrageous back-heeled flick.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I am sitting here trying to figure out what double entendre that you are talking about as I assure there was no risque or indecent language intended…all I could think in reading back over the post is you made something out of “toss and blow others”. I appreciate dirty minds, as I have one myself…so bravo there, but I assure you there was no intent. That particular line is one I use often as it comes from lyrics from an Alan Parsons Project I am particularly fond of called Old and Wise.

          “And ooh, when I’m old and wise, heavy words that tossed and blew me, like autumn winds will blow right through me”

          You two are just marvelous. lol

          Liked by 3 people

          1. “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

            ― Ol’ Zachry, in Cloud Atlas

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        2. Hariod/Swarn… a portion of modern neurology advocates that human cognition, in this case here conscious perception/interpretation/interpolation, is merely a byproduct of 60,000 to 100,000 years of predetermined cellular blueprints passed down from ancestral primates; i.e. individual consciousness has no significant bearing on the atomic or Macro-Cosmic machines. We are merely complex organisms in a grande complexity of scripted bending behaviours. In order to cope and survive this our theatrical procession, our egos invented “consciousness” to avoid insanity — a chronic condition of which I suffer greatly! 😀 Therefore, I often entertain my Bohemian decadence (though surprisingly some disagree) to relocate my “nirvana”… (my “Boundaries”?) depending on which cast member you ask. ❤ 😉

          Liked by 2 people

    1. I would say almost everything I write is a message to myself although I am not sure it is coded really. Although I am sure at times I come off as preachy, the reality is that what I write is often a reminder to my own self…a way to express jumbled thoughts into words and act as a guide to directions I want to move in life, and hope that my own journey of self-discovery is meaningful to others or has been experienced by others too.

      Indeed one of the main reasons I write is to be able to express my introspective nature. And so with this piece, although inspired by my son, set a contrast against my own feelings as I age and feeling somewhat more accepting of the sort of madness that makes up our world. It takes a greater level of conscious thought to ask those simple questions which perhaps can only happen when things feel brand new. A privilege of the young perhaps. I think we can break away from our conditioning, but only if we are conditioned to do so. lol And there in lies the rub. Perhaps the greatest gift my parents gave me was to teach me the value of new experiences and asking questions. But I think it’s so easy in this world to fall into a rut of the routine as we age, because we’ve gotten used to things.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Beautifully expressed, Swarn, and I suppose it might prove a non-productive debate to pick apart to what extent we codify our thinking, even that which we report to ourselves. I certainly don’t mean to imply that you consciously generated a subtext to your words here, although I do think that to some degree we all have subconscious influences in play within our conscious thoughts and writings – meaning that when we verbalise silently in our heads, or express such verbalisations in writing, there is some hidden code (a conditioned influence) therein. From where do thoughts come otherwise, we may ask? And do you not sometimes read the words you write and just momentarily question yourself: “what am I really saying here, and to whom is it being addressed?” It’s contentious, but I don’t believe it’s possible to have an original (coherent) thought, yet entirely possible to believe that we do.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Are you saying that my posts read as someone who doesn’t know what they are saying? lol

          In that spirit of introspection that is probably a lot of my posts. This one is was written to be more organic, something that was in the early stages of rumination in my mind, but when the inspiration level is high. I try to write more when I’m inspired than when I’ve thought about things too carefully. Maybe it’s dishonest as an academic, but I try not to be too academic in my posts, as my goal is to inspire more than necessarily inform. Not that I don’t like to be informed myself, but I guess this has simply been the form I wanted my blog to take, hoping that it would elicit more discussion or just something that people turn over in their mind even if they don’t have any comments to add to the piece itself.

          I agree that a truly original thought is likely not possible, but like in Cloud Atlas, a new thought can be inspired by an old one. Much like the quote you gave, the shape of the cloud may change but it’s still a cloud. Through inspiration we may have seeds that we grow into something new that plants new seeds, or maybe it’s more like an old house that we renovate or add on additional rooms. Preserving some of the old, while also adding on.

          At one time in my life I felt like I wasn’t very original, and that I had no creativity, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that originality is not really creating something entirely original, but rather more often taking something that already exists and revealing it in a different way. This Star Trek TNG conversation between Data and Picard sums it up rather well. 🙂

          “Captain Jean-Luc Picard: [about Data’s recent violin concert] Your playing is quite beautiful.
          Lt. Cmdr. Data: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bron-Ken.
          Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinist. Heifetz and Bron-Ken have radically different styles, different techniques, and yet… you combined them, successfully.
          Lt. Cmdr. Data: I suppose I have learned to be… creative, sir – when necessary.
          Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Mr. Data, I look forward to your next concert.”

          Liked by 3 people

  5. It reminds me of my recruitment job where the university had these crazy admissions rules, and we would ask the same thing: this doesn’t make sense, why are we doing it? And the admissions office would reply that it’s just because it has to be that way. No justified reason. It was so frustrating. I hope my nephew will always ask that question!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed. My experience with committees and other bureaucracies are similar…ultimately I think these things are necessary, but they also must adjust and change with times…often it seems they just exist outside of time. lol


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