What is a Border?

Some 10th grade students at Galileo High School here in San Francisco are being tasked with writing an essay or poem that explains what borders mean to them. I am lucky enough to be a volunteer writing tutor working with these students and so I get to be a part of this provocative experiment. We have just begun, so I am not sure what I’m going to learn from the one student I’m paired with, a beautiful and mysterious looking Algerian girl of 16. But I can tell you, I’m fascinated to discover the thoughts and feelings that lie under the surface of her smart and enigmatic young face. She has lived here with her aunt for many years now, is fluent in English, and yet something tells me very connected to the culture she left behind. In our first conversation we talked about foreign languages (French, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian) and exotic places we’d love to visit in the world. It struck me that not only is she Algerian, but she’s also a citizen of the world. I thought it was only fair that I jump into the assignment with her, and so what follows is a somewhat free-form discussion of borders from this 73rd old white woman.

When I think of borders the first thing I see is a line in the sand, a mark of separation that says, “one side is this, and the other side is that.” There are other words that come to mind: wall, door, fence, containment, barrier, shield, separation, division, suffering, and death….

Many of the borders that I’ve crossed in my life didn’t look like very obvious, like the time when I was on a train from Italy into France and had lost my passport and was panicking for fear I couldn’t get home… it turned out that there was no visible border that our train crossed in the middle of the night, and those on duty could have cared less about looking at passports as we chugged along on our journey . There was a border crossing once that really felt like crossing over a line and that was in Tijuana when my husband and I were returning from Mexico and walking across with our luggage that included some bottles of tequila and kahlua, as it turned out one too many bottles! So, as we were about to cross into American territory, we were instructed by uniformed agents to get rid of the alcohol, either by drinking it on the spot or throwing it in the garbage. I remember that we both felt annoyed at having to dump the booze… Frequently we cross borders when we fly from place to place, so obviously we have little concrete experience of traveling from one particular country to another. That often made long journeys seem surreal to me. You go up in the air, have drinks and lunch and spend time there, and then come down in an entirely different culture, like traveling from Europe to India, or the US to Japan. Often mountains and oceans serve as borders of sorts … You cross over some mountains from Nepal and find yourself in Tibet. You soar in a plane over the vast Pacific Ocean and find yourself in Hong Kong.. On these trips the “borders” you deal with are the long, slow moving immigration lanes you must pass through with your passport before entering a different country.

Clearly this issue of borders is complicated. Despite globalization and internet and such, today’s political climate tells us that we are different from others: our skin color, our religion, our traditions, our language, our level of education and advantage, our trustworthiness, and so on. The more these differences are clung to, the more people begin to think in dualistic terms: believing that their religion is better than another’s, or their traditions superior, and their sense of righteousness more solid. This unfortunate dual thinking operates on both sides of the equation… There are clearly surface differences in our human community and then there are often deeply held internal views that come to us over time in our families and society, and these become stirred by fear. It appears that too often in too many places people are being warned to guard against that which is different, because the very fact of that difference is a threat, the threat of annihilation. The vision that the brown and black and yellow red and white skinned peoples can coexist with common purpose in peace and harmony seems frequently less clear. So sad.

Even before I came to Buddhism, I couldn’t subscribe to the notion that the white race was inherently superior to the others, or that the Protestant tradition superior to that of the Muslims or Sikhs or Jews. Why? Because I traveled over different parts of the world from the time I was young, and I discovered new ideas, connections, and a sense of comraderie when I looked others in the eye and asked questions and listened to answers. I was blessed to have been able to have such an opportunity and all the learning that came along with it. And since I’ve practiced in the Buddhist tradition, I’m even more convinced that the barriers that people construct to define their lives are unwholesome and in fact destructive. If you live within tightly held barriers, then you cannot learn or be connected to others; you become trapped by ignorance and isolation. Not helpful. The Buddha believed in one human family, and I find that I do as well.

If borders are meant to protect us from others, what exactly are we trying to keep at bay? Is it just illegal drugs and all the horrors that go along with them, or is it something else?

I can see that we want to be safe and secure; this makes sense. But history has already shown that the borders that already exist have not kept us safe. It’s one thing to lock your door at night, or the trunk of your car, but creating barriers, walls, and the like, cannot keep humans from pursuing their vision of a new life in America, or prevent those driven by greed who want to traffic in drugs. The human will is formidable. I’m certainly not saying that border security is hopeless - what I am saying is that it is the intention behind the plans for security is vital. If the plans are made keep the violence and mayhem at bay are done from an intention of keeping all peoples safe, then that makes sense; if systems are put into play out of a xenophobic view that we must prevent our country from assimilating others, then I have to say it is wrong.

Our country has a racist past, there is no doubt, and we are currently wrestling with new waves of anti-foreign, anti-immigrant feelings that are profoundly unsettling. Sadly the word “border” for many has become synonymous with exclusionary views. Wrong. I’m thinking that borders are perhaps abstractions, even those old fences and walls… They can be climbed. They can be torn down. These fences and walls are symbols in a way of a dark constricted fear of change, a fear of the unknown… And there are other “borders” that exist in our everyday lives, those interior states of mind that tell us what is good and what is bad, who is ok and who is not. As soon as we find ourselves clinging to one adamant point of view that looks like a value judgment, it would be wise to stop and reflect whether we’ve hemmed (fenced) ourselves in, created a border in our mind that keeps us from expanding and living in peace.

I would love to think of borders as wonderful “frames” around a drawing or painting, or the intricate lace trim on a beautiful dress, or the covers of wonderful books … These contain but do not limit. They can even enhance. The cultural borders and all the pain and suffering that comes with aggressively defending them is a scarier phenomenon. In the end, all I know is that no wisdom or harmony will come if people don’t talk to one another, look each other in the face, and try to understand. The psychic borders keeping people from this do not help our world, and it is our job as conscious beings with one precious life to respond to this, to give our best selves to the challenges of bringing the world together, not tearing it apart.

Mag Dimond