We are complex, self organizing, evolving systems. We need permeable boundaries to let in information and nutrients, and to release toxins and waste. If our boundaries are too tight, we suffocate or starve, too loose and we disintegrate. It’s a balancing act.
As I write this the New England snow storm is winding down over Atlantic Canada. Storms are also complex, evolving systems, as are most of the dynamic structures in our universe. Mind and storm are made of the same stuff and similar patterns; no wonder we see ourselves reflected in the world! It is an oddity of human nature that we imagine ourselves as other than all that is.
Actually, it is not so odd. Having boundaries is essential to being; we are inherently gatekeepers. Without a well grounded sense of self we risk the terrors of psychosis. Without adequate defenses against the invasion and proliferation of micro-organisms, we become physically ill.We need borders in order to have successful relationships and communities, and spend much time trying to determine who is in or out, friend or foe. We watch for markers of differences and these may become sites of boundary conflict. We build barriers to inclusion, then embrace persons who are in some way other.
Gatekeeping is also often an element in many professional lives. In the U.S., mental health professionals are expected to maintain careful boundaries around relationships with clients and matters of confidentiality. Yet when we attend required courses that discuss ethics and boundaries, we discover that, in practice, local cultural norms often trump rules and the protocols established by national professional organizations. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the ethical standards that work in large cities often fail to address the needs of people in villages and small towns. The complexity only increases when we work with persons from non-Western cultures and Indigenous communities.
Still, governments and organizations establish standards for training and practice that allow individuals to achieve, and maintain, professional status in mental health fields. While these standards are heralded as providing some protections for the public, they also, as Foucault famously pointed out in The Birth of the Clinic, allow professional organizations to limit access to valuable financial resources.
While gatekeeping is a fact of life, it may not end with our passing from this life. One of my teachers was an acclaimed psychopomp, an expert in accompanying deceased souls to the Land of the Dead, a gatekeeper for to afterlife. When I think of him, I am reminded that the metaphors of gate and gatekeeper are rich with meaning and possibility, and the view one has of the gate may well depend on which side of the gate on is on. I imagine he would agree with that.