Where do I stop?

You’d think after all these years I’d know about my boundaries, wouldn’t you? Not so much how far I can go, as much as how far I do go. Let’s face it our limits are often culturally constrained. Occupationally limited. A doctor is seldom a lawyer, and although there may be a limited overlap, neither strays very far into the territory claimed by the other. To wander across that border is to court the unfamiliar, risk the unforeseen. We feel most comfortable in those things to which, either by training or inclination, we have grown accustomed -to those things that are at least fairly predictable.

No, it’s the other boundary that intrigues me more, because it delineates where I stop, where I meet the world. It’s more of a mental thing, than anything else, though. When I was in University, we called the subject Proxemics -the study of personal zones: at what distance from you, should I stand for you to feel comfortable? Feel that I’m not too close, if uninvited? I’m not sure where I got the idea, but I read somewhere that for most of us, the personal border was approximately an arm’s length away. And that was just for comfort; safety was another metric altogether -it depended on the circumstances, and whether or not you were carrying pepper-spray.

In my early days before I had read much about it, I assumed that there must be different parameters of comfort for different people: women were obviously more cautious than men, because they would seldom allow me even an arm’s length away. Men, on the other hand, just barged right in if they were bigger than me. You learn these things pretty quickly when you’re a child and develop corrective schemes to cope.

It’s when you grow up that it can seem hurtful if your zones are different from those with whom you might like to mesh. Eyes tell me a lot, naturally, and so do curses not loud but deep, or maybe an angry shove, but it can still be hurtful if I approach with the best of intentions -especially if I’m bringing flowers… I can never judge where I should stand, or if the gift even allows me inside the zone.

I realize that in these current times of plague and mistrust of anybody with or without a mask, things are necessarily different, but every so often in my aging mind, my memory hearkens back to more halcyon times when it was not so. It’s hard to unravel all the neural tangles and Tau that has taken years to fashion, so I felt incredibly indulged by an article that outlined how it used to be… https://aeon.co/essays/where-is-the-dividing-line-between-you-and-the-world

Co-written by Colin Klein, an associate professor of philosophy at the Australian National University, and Frédérique de Vignemont at the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris, it is an informative romp through Proxemics (although they tended to adhere to the more nuanced term of peripersonal space). Like animals, we all need to buffer ourselves, not only against predators, but against, well, other people. ‘This buffer is a byproduct of our evolutionary history, which has equipped our brains with a way to acknowledge and track the importance of our immediate surroundings.’

And, of course, the space is malleable, and varies with the meaning we attribute to it -almost like concentric circles of risk. ‘There’s a close link, in other words, between physical and temporal immediacy when we respond to threats.’ Much of it, though, is not so much about possible threats as against inconveniences -obstacles like rocks on a trail, or people carrying packages -those sorts of things.

‘[I]t was a long time before scientists realised that that the distinction between near and far in space is one that the brain also treats as especially important. The neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his collaborators were the first to find evidence that peripersonal space was specially encoded by the brain.’ And this seems to be present from an early age; it may even be considered a ‘second skin’. In the dark, a person coughing often seems nearer because of the potential threat they may exhibit.

‘Peripersonal space depends on predicting contact, and contact prediction is useful both when that contact is welcome and when it’s to be avoided. Whether you’re dodging a ball or catching it, the same mechanisms appear to be engaged. In both cases, you need to be ready, and to be ready you need to anticipate what’s coming your way.’

Even in the times before social distancing, I always tried to avoid people who were coughing or sneezing and never felt guilty about it. I was distinctly uncomfortable with strangers sitting too close to me on a bench, although with that, I have to admit there were vestigial traces of guilt that I was being too suspicious. Too careful. At least an arm’s length always seemed a minimally acceptable peripersonal zone in those days, and yet I was always eager to extend it in situations where I felt embarrassed -or even ashamed- that I’d forgotten the encroacher’s name or that I’d met them before. Things like that.

But as I have aged, so has society and I finally have an excuse: there are now rules about these things. I would hate to credit pestilence with purpose, but in my case, it has solidified distances; it has defined how far I should extend into the world: 2 meters… well, at least here in Canada anyway. I’m not exactly sure how they arrived at that distance, but at least it’s measurable. Aspirational. And finally I can say I’m not much different from anybody else -it’s not that I am being difficult, or anything. Let’s face it, nowadays, you’re not supposed to trust other people, and I can shrug and make my eyes seem apologetic above my mask without having to explain.

And yet, all this distance is having an unexpected effect on me: I’m not so sure I want it anymore. I suppose what I want is the ability to choose again. If you think I should stay an arm’s length away, fine. But maybe let the flowers I bring help you to decide…

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