Think Outside the Borders

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

My wife and I both needed dental work recently beyond a routine cleaning or filling. Faced with the prospect of dental bills sufficient to make a down payment on a house, we struggled with what to do. Finally it dawned on us that we were not constrained by national borders. Many U.S. citizens go to other countries for medical and dental procedures. Why couldn’t we? (If you wonder why dental care is not covered by your regular health insurance, assuming you’re fortunate enough to have health insurance, it’s the dentists’ fault.)

We did a lot of research and decided to visit a dentist in San Jose, Costa Rica. It ended up being a delightful experience. Even accounting for travel costs, we saved thousands of dollars and received excellent dental care. Better care than we felt we were receiving from our local dentist. In my case, the dentist in Costa Rica (who did, in fact, get much of his dental education in the U.S.) was able to do something my U.S. dentist claimed was not feasible. I received less expensive, and less invasive, treatment. We had time to do some sight-seeing while we there. We felt welcomed everywhere we went, enjoyed some delicious food, and were reminded that “pura vida” is a philosophy worth carrying everywhere.

Two men standing on sidewalk and storefront with black and white portraits of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison
Famous faces in Alajuela, Costa Rica

Of course, what I’m getting at is a variation of the adages to “think outside the box” or “color outside the lines.” Questioning fundamental assumptions, ignoring arbitrary boundaries, is a basic premise of creativity. While people around you follow a conventional path, you can always choose to go your own way.

This was on my mind while reading Walter Isaacson’s 2017 biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci pioneered the painting technique known as sfumato. Sfumato involves the use of colors and shading to create lifelike transitions, rather than using lines to define shapes or features. Da Vinci often used his fingers to smooth paint layers instead of a brush, to achieve a more realistic look. The Mona Lisa is a classic example of sfumato. Isaacson quotes from da Vinci’s own journals to document the artist’s disdain for the use of lines in painting:

“Lines are not part of any quantity of an object’s surface, nor are they part of the air which surrounds this surface. … The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object; and this being its nature it occupies no space. … The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness. Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines.”

Aerial view of unidentified city in southwestern United States
The view from above: what look like lines are really three-dimensional paths offering infinite unique journeys

In other words, real people and objects are not defined by solid lines, so a lifelike painting should not be defined by solid lines, either. We really do live in a world without boundaries.

Boundaries are entirely artificial constructs. They may have benefit, such as keeping a safe distance from someone who may harm you physically or emotionally. Often times, such as the regional and national boundaries we draw on maps, they seem to inspire more harm than good. Nationalism, or other forms of tribalism, rarely improves the world. Even what we perceive as natural borders, such as rivers or mountain ranges, are not fixed. They change over long periods of time, and after a natural disaster can change with frightening speed.

Al Vienta sculpture in San Jose, Costa Rica
It takes courage to confront borders (“Al Vienta” sculpture in San Jose, Costa Rica)

 

Borders can inhibit us from seeing the world as it really is. My wife and I found a kind of liberation by looking across artificial borders to find the care we needed at a cost we could afford. Da Vinci understood that people don’t move through life as line drawings and liberated his art from past conventions. We all have boundaries in our lives, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional. True freedom, creative or otherwise, isn’t easy. If you look for boundaries in your work and your life, and question why they exist and how you can dismantle them, you may be surprised at how much freedom it gives you. Sometimes defeating a boundary is as simple as stepping over it. An individual, just like a society, can’t hide forever behind walls or close-minded ideology. Liberating yourself as an individual can add vibrancy to your creative work and joy to your life. And you just might find others who are inspired to follow your lead.

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