I found myself in a conversation yesterday on the nature of boundaries in an unhurried conversation organised by Johnnie Moore. It was an enlivening experience.

I think boundaries is one of those chameleon words that changes its meaning depending on where it crops up in conversation. For populists, it represents something to be defended or attacked. For coaches, something to be aware that we are crossing. For biologists, something that defines identity. Closed boundaries equal closed systems, lack of exchange, and inevitable decline, whilst no boundary means no identity at all.

For some, they are most manageable when they are well defined and fixed. Something we can label – like Brexit, or as a basis to build a wall somewhere. It is something intellectual property lawyers can work with, as the recent court case of the enormous Oatly company taking its much smaller oat-based milk competitor Glebe Farm to court for naming its product Pure Oaty, as though they were a genuine threat. (I have to admit to being pleased that Glebe Farm won.) Covid country boundaries change according to a combination of latest evidence and commercial pressure, and Brexit is acceptable until whole industry sectors suffer from labour shortages, and then definitions are flexed. 

The natural world teaches us that boundaries are fluid and change by the moment and that we cannot determine boundaries from the centre with a command and control mentality. Instead, they are determined, by the moment, at the edge of the system, according to circumstance and need.

I think it is what each of us is doing now as we deal with the multiple complexities of a post-pandemic, trans climate change world. Where we work, how we work, who we work with and to what end—a constant flux of changing information, attitudes and goals. Commands from the top floor of a shiny city office block are no longer credible, despite the force with which they might be applied.

It changes our understanding of boundaries from something masculine and aggressive to something altogether more feminine and generative—boundaries as an awareness of possibilities. 

The decisions we make on where our boundaries lie determine what information we exchange, what actions we take, defines our identity, and cannot be delegated to others if we are to be true to ourselves.

We don’t need to set boundaries because the important ones tend to set themselves, but we we do need to be exquisitely aware of them and what they mean for us. Our futures depend on it.

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