On border guards, claustrophobia, and the right to breathe
The border appeared too quickly. On a small highway with little traffic, nobody had bothered to post a “5 km to the U.S. border” sign, so I was suddenly there with no time to prepare. With some trepidation, I pulled up next to the border guard’s window, took off my sunglasses, smiled my best “I’m not a danger to your country” smile, handed him my passport, and tried not to look nervous.
I could feel my heartbeat increase as he scanned his computer. Would he see the alleged “note on my file” that the last border guard had said he was putting there when I’d been told I didn’t have the right visa and wouldn’t be allowed back into the country without it? Would he turn me around and send me back home, even though I was visiting for pleasure this time and nobody would be paying me to work in the country? Would he, like the last border guard, wave a binder full of visa information in front of me and say “I’m not sure which visa you need, but I know you don’t have it.” I wasn’t sure… all I could do was smile, nod, and cooperate when he peered through my car windows at the camping equipment in the back.
Minutes later, he’d let me through without incident. My body reacted with relief, taking deep gulps of air to fill the lungs I’d apparently been depriving. How long had I been holding my breath waiting for this moment? Perhaps for months already.
I didn’t realize, until that moment, just how claustrophobic I’d been feeling, worried that I might no longer have easy access into the United States where so many of my friends, colleagues, and clients live. Many people live rich and full lives without ever owning a passport or crossing an international border, but I am not one of those people. I was born for expansiveness, for global wandering, for deep connections with people and places all over the world. A smaller life than that leaves me feeling trapped, with less air to breathe. (Yes, I am aware of what a privilege this life is, and how my normal privilege, as a white woman, is to easily cross the border into any country I’ve visited.)
After my breath slowed and I continued my long drive to the Boundary Waters for my canoe trip, I had a sudden flash of insight…
I have been performing for border guards all of my life, waiting anxiously with a smile on my face as they decide my fate, hoping I haven’t done or said anything that might offend them or turn them against me.
Every woman knows this story. So does every person of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled person, and member of other oppressed groups without access to power. We all know that we can choose to stay in our own “countries” (the spaces, jobs, neighbourhoods, etc., where those with power consider to be our rightful place). But if we dare to venture forth into more expansive “countries”, we have to face the border guards who have the power to create or dig up arbitrary rules about why we don’t belong there.
There were the border guards who told me which sports a girl was allowed to play. And some who told me what clothing was acceptable and wouldn’t create too much temptation for the occupants of the more powerful “country”. Others who said that I was pretty smart “for a girl”, letting me know that there was a limit on how far I could go with my intellect. And there were those who didn’t allow me into certain boardrooms or didn’t invite me to attend political events because I didn’t play “the (male) game” well enough. And some who told me I couldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t learn to keep my emotions out of it. And some who said that women weren’t as valuable in the workplace because they’d end up going off on maternity leave at some point. And others who implied that the business I longed to build was too “soft” to be taken seriously.
Most of those border guards didn’t think of themselves as border guards and were probably never fully aware of the fact that they were keeping me or anyone else out of their country. They simply saw it as their birthright to live in a more expansive country than I did, and when they saw me or anyone else trying to cross the border, they got nervous that there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us, so they pushed back, made up arbitrary rules, and protected their territory. Some were probably very uncomfortable enforcing these arbitrary rules, but they feared they’d be kicked out of their own country if they didn’t uphold them. (I think of my father, for example, who admired strong women and often told me so, but, as the leader of our small church, couldn’t let me do Bible reading or speaking from the pulpit because it would make other church members uncomfortable.)
Just like I could choose to stay in Canada, I could choose to build a relatively full and happy life within the confines of this country called womanhood, but that’s not the life I was born for. I was born with natural gifts in leadership and communication – both things I’ve often been told I’d need to suppress in myself because of my gender. The claustrophobia that had me holding my breath at the border had me holding my breath on a regular basis when I feared I’d reached the limits of what’s acceptable for my gender.
There’s another claustrophobia that I’ve wrestled with in my past and that is the claustrophobia of the faith I was raised with. There are many things I love about my Mennonite roots, but the “evangelical” part is one that my expansive heart wouldn’t let me hang onto.
I could no longer live within the confines of a “country” where we were taught that there was only one way to get across the border – to have access to the “true God” and to get the golden ticket to heaven. I could no longer live in a country where my Muslim friends, my Hindu friends, and my LGBTQ+ friends needed to be converted. I couldn’t be part of a faith that wanted me to become one of those border guards, letting people know how to gain access.
Once again, I don’t think anyone within the evangelical faith tradition thinks of themselves as border guards and some will be offended that I offer this analogy. The people I know well are loving and kind people who want to share the faith that sustains them and I don’t blame them for that – faith is a good thing to have and to share. But I know that my own personal claustrophobia only ended when I chose, instead of an evangelical church, to sit in circles with other seekers who choose not to believe that one way is the only way, that one “country” is the only good country.
In both of the situations I’ve mentioned, I learned, to one degree or another, both to live with my claustrophobia and to begin to serve as a border guard myself, conveying the rules to those who didn’t yet know them, letting some people know that they weren’t behaving in a way that warranted access, and protecting the privilege and power that I, too, have benefited from. When it comes to being white, for example, it served me well to work with the border guards in making sure we didn’t have to share the country of power and privilege with too many others. Sometimes, serving as a border guard is as simple as turning a blind eye to the plight of those who’ve been denied access.
I kept myself small too, serving as my own border guard and limiting myself with my own self-doubt, fears, and internalized oppression. It was easier to learn to live with the claustrophobia than to risk the judgement of the border guards I was taught to fear.
This week, I looked at the photos of the white supremacists marching with torches in Charlottesville and I saw border guards. These young white men desperately want to protect the “country” that they believe is their birthright. The world is changing around them and they feel threatened and backed into the corner by those people demanding access to what they’ve always assumed belonged exclusively to them. They watch the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the election of a black president, increased immigration, and the legalization of same sex marriage, and they’re incensed with the fact that too many people are crowding into their “country”.
But the thing about being a border guard is that it’s a fear-based position. If you are tasked with protecting something that everyone else wants access to, you have to be ever vigilant and watchful and you can’t help but be somewhat paranoid. You can’t really trust anyone because you never know when they might threaten what you want. And you have to be willing to sell your soul for the cause of the country you’ve pledged allegiance to. When the rules change, you have to keep enforcing them even if you don’t understand or agree with them. One false move and you could lose your precarious position, so you learn to obey the masters that control your fate and dole out the power you’ve become addicted to.
Just like there is claustrophobia in being confined to a country that feels too small for you, there is claustrophobia in being a border guard protecting a space that outsiders are trying to get access to. I could see that claustrophobia on the faces of those young white supremacists. Their coveted space is getting smaller and they’re panicking over the fear that sharing it means less for them. Their wide open spaces don’t feel so wide open anymore.
I don’t only suffer from claustrophobia in a metaphorical sense – I face it in a very real sense in closed, crowded spaces. When it happens, I have a minor panic attack and have to find a quick exit to an open space where I can take deep gulps of air, just as I did when I crossed the border last week.
I’m sure some of those young white supremacists were feeling a similar desperate need for the fresh air they’ve convinced themselves they no longer have access to, and they’re willing to step on people in their desperation to get to it. If they only knew that the only way to breathe truly fresh air without feeling like you’re being closed in on is to allow everyone to breathe that air.
I don’t know for certain if this was the origin of my claustrophobia, but this is the first of it I remember… My older brothers and their friends had constructed an elaborate maze out of hay bales. As kids on the farm, we often built forts in the hay bales, but this was the first time I remember them building a maze, where you enter a dark, narrow doorway on your hands and knees and have to find your way to the exit, feeling your way along in the pitch black. Since you’re in a space only big enough for your body on hands and knees, there is no turning back.
I was always eager to hang out with my brothers, so I accepted their invitation to be the inaugural visitor to the maze. Once inside, I panicked. No matter where I turned, I couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel. The walls started closing in on me. I called to my brothers to let me out, but, at first, they laughed and said I’d have to keep trying. Then I started to panic, shrieking and flailing, desperate for light and fresh air, convinced I was going to die inside that dark tunnel. Finally, my brothers, who cared too much for me to leave me trapped, began dismantling the maze until they found me and could release me into the fresh air.
This isn’t just a story from my childhood – it’s a metaphor for what we need to consider in our culture right now. There are people trapped inside the maze of patriarchy and white supremacy, trying to get access to the same air that those outside the maze have access to. (Think, for a moment, of Eric Garner, who died telling the police “I can’t breathe!”) There are people who’ve reached the height of their claustrophobia and they’re flailing around and screaming, trying to get the attention of the people on the outside. Those who stand outside can choose to hang onto their fear that there is not enough air for all of us and continue to serve as border guards, serving the system they created and benefit from, or they can start to dismantle the system, one hay bale at a time.
I choose to be one of the dismantlers.
Because the air I breathe is only fresh if you have access to it too.