Archive for May, 2014

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

I have traveled through Ireland for several days; from Dublin to Sligo to Donegal and Galway.   In a short time, I have seen more DSC00855fences here than I have possibly seen in many months before.  Everywhere, there are fences, walls, hedges and borders.

There are hawthorne hedges, grown tightly together.  Dry stone walls are everywhere; the stones fit together beautifully to stand stable.  This is an engineering skill perfected thousands of years ago by the builders of the massive cairns.  There are occasional woven wickets with branches beautifully basket woven across vertical fenceposts.  More lazily constructed wickets consist of branches simply been piled between the fenceposts.  A hawthorne hedge, over 6 feet high and dead as a doornail, has been trimmed and tidied and left to stand as a very effective wall.  Sometimes these walls appear in combination, the most popular being a stonewall hawthorn hedge.  The hawthorn may grow on top of the stone wall or next to it.

The countryside is covered with a patchwork of small fields, edged by walls.  Even in remote places like the Burren there are walls.  There are walls where one wouldn’t expect to need any, and stone walls where stone seems redundant.  Presumably these walls are to keep sheep and other livestock in their pastures.  Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to find a sheep trotting lackadaisically along the road or a chicken wandering out into traffic.  The walls cannot be said to keep out trespassers, as many of them have convenient styles and gates which make the fields accessible to humans if not cattle or sheep.

Whether anything is kept in or out, boundaries allow people to define their territories; what is my field and what is yours.  Without intact boundaries we may become unbalanced in our ability to empathize and relate with others.  I can become hyper-aware of thoughts and feelings of others while neglecting my own space.  Another may see others as extensions of himself, not recognizing their separateness.  Good boundaries do not preclude your thoughts and feelings sometimes being in my space like a wandering sheep or a chicken run amok.  We can exchange thoughts and feelings with others, like crossing a style.  After all, walls connect as much as they separate.

Empathy is sometimes defined as being able to recognize and understand another’s thoughts and feelings and to respond in appropriate ways.  Good boundaries allow us to recognize and respect our own and others’ space.  I cannot empathize with you if I think you are simply an extension of me, or if I take on your thoughts and emotions and confuse them with my own.  I will certainly misunderstand your mental and emotional stuff and probably not respond in ways that are helpful to either of us.

Good boundaries make for empathic relationships.  This seems apparent in Ireland where I find the people unvaryingly kind and respectful.  Drivers are generally patient on the narrow roads.  People seem accepting and polite compared to other places I know.  Conversations I overhear seem full of allowance for the thoughts of others, such as, “Well now, you are probably right,”  or “I’m thinking it might be nice to try what you are doing,” and “Of course there are other points of view.”

Good fences make good neighbors.  Is it a coincidence that Ireland, which seems very civil to me is crisscrossed with walls?


The Socratic Interaction

XantippeI attended an AAUW (American Association of University Women) meeting recently at which we held a Socratic discussion.  This wonderful form of interaction a was made even more delightful to me when the topic chosen was civility.

I have found that AAUW meetings are usually quite civilized to begin with; a bunch of mature, smart women around the table exchanging ideas instead of soundbites.  The Socratic discussion format further encourages civility by allowing participants to clarify their thinking, examine their assumptions and provide evidence for their opinions.  In addition, the implications of an argument are examined and a space is made for counter arguments.

A lovely time was had by all.  I had feared that the facilitation would be pedantic and dull, but delving into each others’ ideas rather than bashing one another with opinions, resulted in a lively and friendly debate with room for everyone’s ideas.  Not once did an intelligent introvert get talked over or shut down!  The extroverts got their turn to speak as well. It was, in short, the most enlightened verbal interaction I can recall in a group that size.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Socrates, but I began to remember a bit about him. You might think Socrates developed his methods from debating with his philosopher cronies, and coaching recalcitrant students.  But I also seem to recall that Socrates was married to Xanthippe, whose name has been given to shrews throughout history.  Xanthippe had a reputation for being quite harsh and abusive, even stomping on a cake that a student had given her husband.  Not a nice gal!

In Xenophon, Symposium 17-19, Socrates is quoted:  “And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”

So we can see why Socrates would facilitate discussions in a thoughtful and civil way – and why his students brought him cakes!  I expect he learned to appreciate and value civilized interactions in the way so many of us do – by experiencing a lack of them!

Thank you Xanthippe for the Socratic discussion…and stay away from my cake.


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