Structure: our system of borders

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Recently the door on the gate to my backyard fell. The post that connected it to its system of networked boards rotted on the bottom and, with a wind gust, it detached and toppled.

It was on my to-do list to repair. But it led to my daughter being “killed” in the Assassins game at Southwest High School. One of the rules of this Nerf gun ritual for teams of graduating seniors is that you cannot enter a private backyard through a closed gate. Since ours had a gaping hole, a “hit squad” was legally able to do a “stakeout.” After we returned from her Ultimate Frisbee game, they Nerfed her as soon as we opened the garage door.

Walls and borders and boundaries make us feel safe — even though anyone can technically find a gateway.

We all play the game. We have rules about where people belong and where they don’t, decide with whom we protect and share. The world seems increasingly to have a visible faction that leans into nationalism, despite globalization of corporate empires, shared planetary concerns and access to Internet story sharing. Many are afraid of people displaced from their borders, seeking a new life. Even those who are aware of our interconnectedness struggle to share with non-likeminded. We all have found reasons to create mental, if not physical and civic borders, that separate Us from Them.


The structure of bodies

A few years ago, I heard pathologist Neil Theise talk about what he sees when he looks at cells in a microscope. There is no neat boundary that separates us from each other, he said. Cells are communities of building blocks for everything we see, but are transforming all the time.

As Theise pointed out, we share our bacteria with others. Pheromones, sweat, breath all extend the boundaries of self. We eat and breathe that which largely comes from plants. Nothing about the make-up of our foundation is permanently “us.”

It was an aha moment for me — at our most fundamental level, human beings are not separated from each other, no matter where our skin structure ends. We are not one set thing, but a constellation of entangled bodies morphing and moving as one.

Another way of looking at the non-structure of Self comes from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who wrote in “Betraying Spinoza”: “What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer?

“I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand … That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day … It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine…. [yet that] series of physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so.”

Is the structure of personal identity related to our body? Our mind?


The structure of the universe

In “The Universe in a Single Atom,” the Dalai Lama wrote that modern biology tells us the story of the organization of life based on material elements aggregated into molecular and genetic structures. Not included in that story is the concept of “prana”the vital energy that gives matter its dynamism and cohesion. Nor does it explain consciousness — the capacity for cognition and reflective thinking.

We can explain the universe as made of measurable and concrete structures, he wrote, but there are less structured forces as well. And “because of this indivisibility of consciousness and energy,” the Dalai Lama wrote, “there is a profoundly intimate correlation between the elements within our bodies and the natural elements in the outside world.”

Quantum physicists including David Bohm, Max Planck and Carlo Rovelli have pointed out the same thing. Albert Einstein said it this way: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.”

I’m sorry the gap in the gate led to my daughter’s fall in the Nerf game. But I’m glad that now we’re able to walk around the city freely.