Thursday, January 9, 2014

Boundaries, Membranes and Walls (January 5, 2014)

Part 1

In the beginning, okay not really the beginning, but 4 billion years ago when the earth had cooled enough for rocks to harden and for water to settle into oceans, life first emerged on earth. How amazing! We can’t really know exactly what happened in those early days of life on earth. All scientists can do is create theories based on the geological evidence that we do have and the life that survives today. We know that due to the tremendous creativity of life, many forms of being emerged and only a fraction thereof survive. Today, in honor of Evolution Weekend, we honor this incredible journey we share with all living things.

First, as the story goes, simple organic molecules began to emerge, chains of simple nucleotides. While scientists haven’t been able to exactly replicate conditions on the early earth, back in the 1950s a scientist called Stanley Miller showed that when electric sparks were discharged into water containing the building block elements, organic molecules would emerge. [i] Then RNA evolved – chains of nucleotides that could reproduce its own patterns and pass these patterns on to offspring. Now the base molecules of life could learn and remember and grow. Those patterns that were most successful in the conditions of that early earth would continue to reproduce themselves. Other patterns that were less effective at surviving or replicating would fade into extinction.

One of the patterns that emerged was to for the genetic material to be enclosed in a cell membrane made up of chains of hydrocarbons- they were similar to modern bacteria. This was so effective that it quickly outpaced the “naked” molecules- those without membranes. This is successful because without a membrane to keep the enzymes you produce for yourself, those enzymes will tend to get co-opted by your neighbors- as if all the neighboring molecules are parasites. A cell with a membrane, on the other hand, can keep its enzymes all for itself. Having a membrane also meant that the contents of the cell could be different from the outside environment- helping these complex molecules remain stable. [ii]

I know on a cold week like this one you have thought a lot about how to stay warm. The thing is it’s much easier to STAY warm than to GET warm. We all know the difference between a well-sealed house on a cold day. Imagine if we opened the doors and windows right now- all the heat we’ve generated here inside would vanish in a few minutes. This was the evolutionary benefit that made those first cells so successful. But we have to open the doors to let in everyone who wants to come to services. So we need not walls, but permeable membranes.

We call those early forms “proto-cells” because they were so much simpler than many of the cells that make up living beings today. These early cells continued to evolve, becoming more complex like the ones in your body today. It took 2 billion years for those proto-cells to involve into new more complex cells, we call eukaryotic because they have all their genetic material separated from the cytoplasm by yet another membrane around the nucleus- this is called the nuclear envelope. (Karyon is the root word meaning “nut” or “kernel”) All the cells in your body today are eukaryotic, and so each has at least 2 membranes.

These cell membranes are not impermeable barriers; they have the job not only of keeping things out but also of letting things in . And the important job of knowing the difference. [iii]

 About 700 million years ago the first multi-cellular beings evolved. The first multi-celled organisms looked something like modern algae, or worms or jellyfish. There are several theories of how this happened, but the most prevalent says that and first they were just a loose affiliation of identical cells, that over many generations began to divide up the work of the colony, and those cells began to evolve in a way that optimized their form to optimize their job. Your human body has about 200 different kinds of cells! These multi-celled organisms developed membranes of their own. Your body has 5 types of membrane- the most obvious being the skin- the “cutaneous” membrane.[iv]

As we heard in our opening reading from the “Journey of the Universe” these membranes, whether the most primitive or the most sophisticated, these are where “the capacity for discernment resides.” Pretty amazing, to think of your tiny little microscopic cells being capable of discernment, and realizing that this is a quality they share with ancestors 4 billion years ago.

Part 2

Something there is that doesn't love a wall” writes the poet Robert Frost. I feel this too. As a person who is looking for the religious life, the deep life, I am constantly challenging myself to break down walls in my own heart and mind. I want to be more patient, more giving, more generous. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” they seem almost contrary to our UU values of openness, service, growth. But I have learned the hard way that as for those early proto-cells, good membranes are life-promoting, are crucial for our health and for the integrity of self.

Endocrinologist Hans Selye, who made his name studying biological stress, quipped:
“At first sight, it is odd that the laws governing life’s responses at such different levels as a cell, a whole person, or even a nation should be so essentially similar”

So I propose that some of those same principles that apply to cell membranes are true for the human being, and for the human community- that to be healthy each of us need permeable membranes. Or, that in community, as Robert Frost says “Good walls make good neighbors.”

Now of course a membrane is not a wall- it is much more sophisticated. A membrane does more than just keep cows in and keep neighbors out. The most healthy successful boundaries are a delicate balance of strong and permeable. Finding this balance is a perennial struggle for individual and society alike. The tension between liberal and conservative religions, between liberal and conservative politics is often said to be the tension between love and the law. Liberals tend to lean heavily on the idea that “love is all you need” and conservatives tend to lean on the idea that tougher laws, tougher punishments create safety and justice. In reality, the evolution of life on this planet shows that an organism without any membrane is quickly out-survived by one with a membrane. And on the other side of the polarity, a being surrounded by an impermeable membrane will suffocate and die. The question is not really whether open is better than closed, but what is the delicate balance that keeps us most healthy and life-giving.

Let’s review the jobs of a membrane and see how we can use this living text to inform our daily lives.

The first job of a membrane is to keep things out. When you shower, for example, some of the water is absorbed by the top layers of the skin (your cutaneous membrane) but doesn’t penetrate into the body. There is a lot of controversy right now about which chemicals do penetrate through the skin into the body. But big things, like marbles, or cookie crumbs, or most if not all the water in your shower stay outside your membrane all-together, or don’t get any deeper than the outer layer of the membranes. But skin is not an impermeable wall. Some things do get through – like oleoresins of certain plants (like poison ivy and poison oak), or the salts of heavy metals such as lead,[v]

In our bodies different kinds of membranes are more or less permeable. Remember when everyone was unsure how people contracted HIV and aids? People were afraid to hug or even shake hands with people who were infected. Later we learned that the skin is a good barrier against transmission, but mucus membranes are not. This is why people contacted aids from infected dentists or sex partners.
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out”
Sometimes liberals err on the side of making their boundaries too permeable. We are a hopeful people and want to believe that we can trust everyone. But the ability to say “no” to what is unhealthy for us is part of being a loving community. I love marbles as much as the next person, but I’m glad my skin keeps them outside my body. Being able to say “no” to things in the environment is critically important to survival. I can lock my door and choose who to let into my house. I can say no to physical and sexual abuse. I can choose to spend time with healthy people who help me be a whole person, and limit the time I spend with people who make me feel less than whole. I can even choose what issues and concerns I am going to let in and make my own, and which I am going to keep outside of myself. And I can change from day to day, year to year, what I let in and what I keep out.

The next job of boundaries is to take things in. We have to breathe. We have to eat. But we need to exclude poison and disease in the food we eat and the air we breathe. On the human scale, we also need information, we need relationships. Sometimes we err on the side of boundaries that are too rigid and we don’t take in enough from outside to allow us to thrive. It’s not hard to find examples in the news of people who simply will not allow new ideas into their minds, and so operate within a paradigm that denies them some of the information they need to effectively live in the real world. Okay, we all do this from time to time. We resist new ideas, ideas that are radically different from how we believe the world to be. But healthy systems tend to let in new ideas pretty freely. Our boundaries are the mechanism through which we discern what ideas will nourish us and which will make us sick.

Let’s extend this idea to relationships. On one end of the spectrum are people who close themselves off to friends and family, isolating themselves with rigid impermeable boundaries. At the other extreme are people who will let anyone into their lives, even people who will use or abuse them. Having good boundaries is about discernment- is this idea food, or is it poison? Is this relationship one that will help me grow and thrive, or one that will eat away at me?

The third job of boundaries is to excrete. After we take something in, we integrate the parts we need and excrete the rest. The word Excrete comes from the root cernere, which means “to separate.” It reminds me of the story of the two monks:

Once there were two monks traveling when they arrived at a river. At the river they discovered a woman struggling to get across. Without a second thought, the older of the two monks asked the woman if she needed help, then swiftly picked her up and carried her across to the other bank.

It should be understood that for monks, especially in ancient times, any contact with the opposite sex would be strongly frowned upon, if not forbidden. The actions of the older monk greatly troubled the younger monk, who allowed his feelings to fester for several miles while they continued their journey.

Finally, the younger monk confronted the older monk, "How could you have done such a thing? We are not even supposed to be in a woman's presence, but you touched her, carried her even!"

The older monk calmly replied, "I put that woman down miles ago, back at the river. But you are still carrying her."[vi]
In this story, the young monk’s boundaries are so rigid they do not allow him to help a woman in need, the older monk has boundaries that are permeable enough to allow him to transgress a taboo when it is the compassionate thing to do, and then to let go of the experience when it is time.

Even with our good friends, our favorite books or TV shows, healthy boundaries allow us to take in what we can use, and separate that which is not useful, or which is toxic, and to let go of it. With a family, within a community, things happen which makes us mad, or ashamed, or sad. If we allow it to sit inside us and festers it can make us sick. But healthy boundaries allow us to let things go that are no longer useful to us.

The final thought about boundaries. Apparently “the surface of the plasma membrane carries markers that allow cells to recognize one another, which …plays a role in the “self” versus “non-self” distinction of the immune response. “[vii] So boundaries help us tell the difference between “self” and “non-self.” When you are part of a group, sometimes we get overwhelmed or seduced by the dynamics of the group. This is the teenager who does something she would normally never do because “everyone was doing it.” This is the employee who does not notice that the demands of his work conflict with his ethics because it is “just the way things are done.” This is the family member who gets sucked into a holiday conflict that doesn’t really involve him. Systems Theory folks agree, the most important way to have healthy systems is to have strong individuals with have a strong sense of self. The teenager who says “hey guys, I don’t think that’s a good idea” not only protects herself, but may in fact help the group a reconsider a risky decision. The family member who says “That’s between Bob and Susan, I’m not getting involved” will not only reduce his own holiday stress, but may help the whole family become less anxious. Remember, even on the cellular level having a membrane means that the contents of the cell could be different from the outside environment. Good boundaries are like permeable membranes, they allow us to be in a chaotic environment and remain stable. They allow us to change and grow without disintegrating.

Throughout my life I have wondered “is love really all you need?” Now I think the answer is “love and boundaries are all you need.” Having boundaries is not contrary to love, they are part of being a good person and leading a generous, loving, compassionate, life. Every living thing on earth has at least one membrane allowing it to be who it is in a chaotic world. To be good neighbors we need not “good walls” but semi-permeable boundaries that support wholeness, and that allow us to let in all we need to thrive and grow and evolve.

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