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Rule #9 - Know your boundaries but also know when to expand them (Rules for Embracing Life in the 21st Century)
Lowering barriers takes trust. Photo taken on our 39th wedding anniversary


  • a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.
  • a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.
  • the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. A person with healthy boundaries can say "no" to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships. TherapistAid.com

A geographer, like Ivan Potter, would naturally gravitate to the first definition. Lines on maps create nations, states, counties, cities, property divisions between what is yours and what belongs to someone else. Knowing boundaries is vital in commerce and laws that depend on knowing boundaries.

I found a portion of a1968 paper written by Ivan for a Kentucky history class at Murray State. The paper, "Hickman County." traced the history to colonial days. He hand drew maps of climate and average temperatures for that time.

Early explorers drew maps to take back home for their sovereigns to use in claiming territories. Maps were guides for transportation. They led to commercial treasures. Navigable rivers were spelled money and settlement.

Expanding boundaries can mean crossing into previously claimed territory. Sometimes there would be conflict. Other times a shrug by a monarch who wasn't particularly concerned with that land. A modern example is the current war in Ukraine. Russia claims Ukraine belonged to them. And so it did. But that was then and this is now. The fall of the Soviet Empire was countries carving out their own paths when the Iron Curtain fell. The Ukrainians rebuilt their own country and aren't willing to shrug their shoulders.

Expanding boundaries can be a result of a sale. A large chunk of America came to us that way. The biggest land transaction in American history, the Louisiana Purchase, was a bargain basement steal between a willing seller and a willing buyer. For Emperor Napoleon, a monarch needing dough to fight a war, the interior of a continent he really didn't plan on using wasn't as important as cold hard cash. He had plans for Hispaniola, the island that is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"In this transaction with France, signed on April 30, 1803, the United States purchased 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million. For roughly 4 cents an acre, the United States doubled its size, expanding the nation westward." National Archives.

That the same land would cost 6.36 trillion in today's dollars. Expanding boundaries was a boon to the new American nation. Jefferson must have chortled over the deal he got.

The Jackson Purchase ratified in 1818 was a smaller but important to our region land deal. General Andrew Jackson and the first Kentucky governor, Isaac Shelby, negotiated the purchase from the Chickasaw Nation. The Chickasaws were paid $300,000 for the Purchase. By all accounts, they got their money. (It was probably the last time that the American government dealt fairly with Native Peoples.) America got land in West Kentucky and West Tennessee along the biggest river in America, the Mississippi. It boasted fertile, flat farming acres with access to river transportation.

A side note before we get all happy with Andrew Jackson for negotiating the land deal that bears his name. While he was President Andrew Jackson, he got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The result was one of the darkest times in American history- the Trail of Tears. One of the Chickasaw chiefs he treated with in 1816, Tishomingo, died on the Trail of Tears. (Map of Kentucky 1804 showing "Indian Lands" to the west)

We still have surveyor sticks up around our yard. Before we sold the lot next door, we needed to know exactly what we were selling. Frost said good fences make good neighbors. So do good surveys. It's all good news because we have good neighbors. This was one of those times to shrink boundaries. Knowing when it's time to expand or shrink is a necessary ingredient to embracing life in the 21st century.

Boundaries exist in organizations and subjects. How many times does the "beyond the scope of the study" come up in science? Studying one subject deeply means setting up boundaries. A study that is too broad reaches broad, sometimes uselessly broad, conclusions.

College students live by the syllabus set out at the beginning of each course. If it's on the syllabus, it will be on the test, they believe. That's not always true. If it's not on the syllabus, then it doesn't exist - at least for that class. It's a predictor on what is to come. The syllabus provides comfort. We will work on this. But not that. That's for another course. Another day.

Personal boundaries matter. Babies know few personal boundaries. Sticking their fingers in your mouth, your ears, up your nose, is fun. As they grow, "mine" and "me" become important divisions of the self from everybody else.

Ask any two-year-old to identify ownership of a toy in their vicinity. I predict the answer will be "Mine!" Older children set boundaries for what they now recognize as theirs. Using a sibling's stuff can be grounds for warfare.

In the 1970s and 80s, self-help authors and counselors began to talk about personal boundaries. There are multiple kinds of personal boundaries. The simplest trio are:


Most of us get very uncomfortable when someone invades our personal space. Hall (1969) delineated four zones of interpersonal distance that characterize Western culture: intimate (up to 18 inches), personal (18-48 inches), social (48 inches to 12 feet), and public (greater than 12 feet). Letting someone into our intimate space without discomfort is letting down a barrier.

Mental boundaries can be difficult to change. Shaped into us by experience, environment, genetics, they are part of who we are. Our core beliefs form our mental barriers. No amount of empirical evidence is going to convince me there isn't a God. Some mental barriers are permeable. Others rigid.

Emotional barriers are lowered to include those we trust or raised to protect us from those who deliberately or not harm us.

I have an issue with the old saying "sticks and stones can break my bones. But words will never hurt me." Whoever coined that one was a cruel trickster. Broken bones heal. Words? They can penetrate the heart leaving indelible marks. They are the misspelled tattoos of our psyches. Yes, they can be removed. But it's going to hurt doing it. More often we cover them up and move on. But they are there.

The saddest part of hurtful words are the youngest are the most vulnerable. Their emotional barriers haven't developed fully. Words, spoken by those in power over them, can last a lifetime.

Barriers. We need them geographically and personally. Some protect us, like this fence along the bluff at Columbus Belmont State Park. Others limit us. A mental barrier can preclude from considering new ideas, new people, new experiences.

Know your barriers but also know when to expand them.

It's also okay too to know when to shrink them.

Addendum: We found Ivan's Rules for Embracing Life in the 21st Century while going through the many pieces of paper he left behind. I was his editor, correcting his grammar, his creatively spelled words and his bureaucratic run on sentences. He didn't share these twelve rules with me so I am not sure when he wrote them or even what prompted him to write them. The rules have made me stop and think. They have pushed me to write again and to share thoughts on each rule and what I think it meant to him. And what it means to me.

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