The Circle

What do mental health, etiquette, and the isoperimetric problem have in common? If you guessed “a circle”, you are right, but I kind of gave away the answer in the title.

How do you enclose the most ground with the least fence? That’s the isoperimetric problem, which is to determine a plane figure of the largest possible area whose boundary has a specified length. The solution is a circle. In other words, the most efficient boundary for enclosed space is a circle.

In three dimensions, the solution is a sphere. A water drop will typically assume a symmetric round shape. Since the amount of water in a drop is fixed, surface tension forces the drop into a shape which minimizes the surface area of the drop, namely a round sphere.

Etiquette is the expected and accepted social behaviors that agree with the conventions and norms practiced by a society. Originally, etiquette was a means to increase the social comfort of individuals within the group. By understanding how to act and what to do, people could interact in social situations with more certainty and comfort.

However, over time, the “rules” of etiquette were used to differentiate between classes of people. People in the “lower” classes were excluded from higher social circles by the absence of their knowledge of, and adherence to, the rules of class etiquette. Historically, people have created many “circles” that included some and excluded others.

I was talking to someone recently who has an adult son who is on the spectrum of autism. The way he is capable of interacting with society differs significantly from the arbitrary standard of “normal”. It is difficult for him to function, but it is not his way of socializing that is the problem, it is the fence that encloses a particular space and keeps him out that is the problem.

“Circles” in society can be exclusive or inclusive. Society has an isoperimetric problem. Instead of trying to limit the “area” inside the circle, we should be trying to encompass the most area with the smallest boundary. In other words, we should try to include more people in our communities by reducing the restrictions and barriers to their participation.

My father has to use a wheelchair to move around. When you are in a wheelchair, it becomes painfully obvious how inaccessible much of the world really is. I am certainly proposing that we reduce the barriers for people with more pronounced physical, mental, and emotional differences. However, the same exclusionary circles exist in much more nuanced ways.

If we are not careful, we can inadvertently leave people outside the circle in many less apparent ways. It may seem silly, but I feel excluded when everyone in the room talks about sports. I can overcome that by learning a little about sports or offering topics that I’m more familiar with. However, many ways people feel excluded are beyond their influence and control.

We all have mental health issues. There are no perfectly adjusted people. Most people learn to act in ways that keep them inside the circle of the parts of society they choose to join. That act is costly though. For some, however, it isn’t possible to act enough. They end up excluded. Like my dad, they can’t overcome the barriers in the way of their participation. Only we can remove them.

Healthy communities actively include as many people as they can. They stretch their boundaries around the largest area possible. Like installing ramps or widening doors, making our communities inclusive in other ways takes effort. Leaders set the example for the work they need others to do. Each of us must be a leader in accepting others as perfectly imperfect and work to expand the circumference of our circles. That is building community, and that is the Bison Way.