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Boundaries and Bridges

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Part I: Boundaries

Most of us have heard the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors.” This concern for boundaries is an ancient one, and not confined to human beings. Animals both wild and domestic set up territories for themselves with clearly defined boundaries that they may even defend to the death. The sense of “boundaries that cannot be passed” is a Biblical theme as well, where even land, sea and air are seen as separated by God with boundaries when He created the world from nothing. (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 104).

Creation is an ordered affair: the entire universe has “laws” of distinction which form the basis for the whole of modern science. It is not surprising to discover that the first scientists were deeply religious people who believed in just such laws and boundaries and that some of the best contemporary scientists continue to be so as well.

Partly, perhaps, to reinforce this sense of boundaries, the Old Testament set up many rules against mingling: Plant only one crop in a field; do not weave a mixture of linen and wool; do not remove a neighbor’s landmark… (cf. Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 19:14, Hosea 5:10) And indeed, the uniqueness of human beings set in their own environment, apart from other creatures, living as individuals, families, communities, ethnic groups, nations is spelled out in many ways in most of man’s religions.

All of these boundaries create a livable environment for our existence. The life of a human being thrust alone without protection into the midst of a tornado, blizzard, tidal wave, earthquake or wildfire, let alone a jungle, a howling mob or the vast reaches of outer space, will be snuffed out quickly.

Perhaps greatest of all is the boundary God placed between Himself and His creation. Since the rebellion of Adam and Eve when He cast them out of the Garden of Eden, placing a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the gate, “Man cannot look upon the face of God and live.” (cf. Genesis 3; Exodus 33:20) The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is a tale of men taking the raw materials of creation to build a proud assault against this boundary. Today we find ourselves living once more in such a cultural building, where God Himself is challenged and questioned, along with any limits and boundaries seen to be of His placement: If a technology exists, there are those who feel they should use it, no matter what boundaries and laws of nature, ethics, love, nation, community and family may be destroyed in the process. We see terrorism, mass extinction, global warming and nature’s own forces of destruction as the first signs that this modern tower of Babel; this inability to recognize and respect the boundaries between God and fallen man, will fall as surely as have all of its predecessors.

Human history is made up largely of following the growth, development, stunting and at times brutal destruction of boundaries – boundaries that begin with the first self-awareness of an emerging nation; a new group; an infant; the realization that one is no longer simply an extension of one’s parent.

On the level of churches, nations, communities, indeed any human group, adults who do not develop a healthy sense of boundaries, which includes almost all of us in this fallen world, create all of the sins catalogued in the Old and New Testaments. Those in authority may be tempted to see the people under them, even their own children, simply as extensions of themselves existing to serve them as their own hands and feet serve them, yet often being less responsible, respectful and careful with them than they are with their own hands and feet. Those not in authority, especially in a democracy, may have a similar temptation, seeing those elected to positions of responsibility to be likewise extensions of themselves, with the expectation that they will please them and carry out their will in every way. Given the myriad and conflicting expectations of different political parties, not to mention interest groups and individuals, God Himself would not be capable of pleasing everyone, even if He were to decide it was appropriate, which so far He has not.

Nevertheless, we do hear Christ saying that those who are in authority or “the greatest,” are to be the servants of all (Matthew 20:26; 23:11). I have no intention of denying this. Yet sometimes it seems as if we the people decide, therefore, that this means we can take on the role of abusive judges and masters. It is appropriate for everyone at times to follow the instructions of others, to allow him or herself to be trained; “discipled.” None of us however: master, comrade, servant or disciple, will be able to accomplish our best if we cannot as adults take responsibility for our own actions, perceptions and strengths. Wise masters gave even slaves the authority and tools to carry out work and obligations. There is a saying that peoples, communities and groups get the leaders they deserve and vice versa. I believe there is real truth to this. Both leaders and people can enable each other in irresponsibility, corruption and abuse; hobble each other into crippling inactivity, or, more rarely in today’s culture, inspire each other to greatness.

On a more intimate level, far too many of us have experienced the phenomenon of families without proper boundaries between members. All sorts of abuse, physical, verbal and emotional may go on when each person is seen as part of the undifferentiated family “persona.” The only “boundary” that may not be broken is that which shields this familial persona from the world: In public, everyone must act as if everything is perfect. Members of such families often have an outstanding presence when they are in public, away from their families. They have a sense of needing to “keep up the image” and have the perfect family veneer that allows them to be charming, warm and compassionate, loving and considerate to all on the outside. While it is good that they have this side, this behavior creates incredible pressure on those caught within: If a person tries to break out of the family secret, “blow the whistle” on what can be in some cases even brutal, criminal behavior, not only will the family retaliate, ridiculing them, accusing them of being vicious slanderers, etc.; outsiders will re-enforce this as well, having seen only the wonderful external persona of individual family members and “knowing” that such “nice” people couldn’t possibly behave in any other way. It is a well-known phenomenon amongst “Twelve Step” groups that often the spouse and children of an addict may seem crazier in public than the addict himself. The addict is able to switch behavior on and off instantaneously, often leaving the other family members to appear to be fuming and hysterical to an outsider who walks in and very naturally comes to the conclusion that this lovely, sensitive, charming person is being “driven to drink” or some other dysfunctional behavior by his or her obviously and inexplicably angry spouse and family.

One who marries into such a family is in for a nasty shock. Until he or she is seen by the others as officially and irrevocably one of the family, the sick, abusive family behavior may never manifest itself. In literature, especially about the nineteenth century, this is a classic theme: The sheltered, sweet Victorian bride who has experienced only sweetness and light, discovering on her marriage night that she has entered a nightmare, without the ability to wake up and escape.

Communities and religious groups can fall into this same type of behavior. We reflect on the Lord’s well-known accusation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).

And the reverse may happen: a relatively healthy, peaceful and happy family or group may be joined by someone who perhaps even unknowingly projects their own abusive standards and behavior onto those he or she is with. We can see this in monasteries as well. Especially people who come from abusive backgrounds may not be aware that they have these “two sides” for denial may have been the only tool they had as children to survive even physically in such an environment. These people appear wonderful and charming as visitors and perhaps even for their entire period of probation. Whenever they begin to feel secure in their community position, however, things begin to change. While guests and outsiders will still see the wonderful person, the community will begin to see an irrational display of depression, anger and jealousy, normally accompanied by accusation of others, since such a person has been formed truly to be blind to him or herself. I remember being told by a wise old nun when I first entered the monastery that every time I was bothered by observing what seemed to me someone else’s wrong words or behavior I was probably seeing in them what I was not willing to see in myself, to the extent that they might not even be thinking, saying or doing what I thought I felt, heard and saw: I was projecting what I would be thinking, saying and doing if I were in their position. I have learned since that this wisdom is straight from the Desert Fathers. This ability to project is even worse than the proverbial halitosis: even your best friend won’t tell you and you certainly can’t see that you are doing it yourself!

Until we are able to learn proper boundaries, we build instead the walls of our own prison. When we do not love ourselves enough to accept our own healthy boundaries and limitations along with our many gifts and talents, we cannot love others properly, either. Proper boundaries allow us to see another person with true detachment – and love. Without them, we will tend to swing between two extremes: we may feel totally “at one” with others; see them simply as extensions of ourselves, when they behave as we feel they should; or when they speak or act in ways that cause us to feel threatened, we will feel totally alienated, needing to defend ourselves with ever greater physical, emotional or spiritual barriers. When others try to live with us, they soon realize that they have no clues as to what “set us off” that time. They begin to feel as if they are in a mine field, never knowing when the next step will explode yet another bomb, while we will be feeling all the while misunderstood, frightened, angry, and unable to face what we may unconsciously fear as hugely destructive forces within ourselves.

This is where blind trust and obedience can be life-saving for us. Some of us literally cannot see where we end and another person begins. May we be given the grace to pray to begin to see this blindness of ours; to begin to accept at least some of what others tell us of their own vision. We need to find at least one other person whom God has led to health and trust them as blindly as we have followed our own destructive path, even when that person’s words may seem to strike at the very roots of our own sense of self and identity. Such a healing process should not last forever, but it will need to last as long as our blindness, at least in this area, exceeds that of our guide. I believe it is good to seek such a healing process, although we should use every possible means first to be sure that we are truly choosing a doctor, not a patient; a ship’s captain, not just a sailor, as St. John Climacus says of finding a monastic guide in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4:6). While it is wonderful when we can find such a guide or mentor in our community, parish or church, we should seek out such a person wherever he or she may be found. That person need not be an authority in every area of our life – we may not need their training in theology, choir directing, bread baking or writing essays – but we do need to accept that in those areas where we are still “babes in our thinking,” as St. Paul says (I Cor. 14:20), we must humbly start from the beginning.

The ability to begin thus to reach out in a healthy way; to build godly bridges that in eternity will cross over boundaries to unite people, churches, nations in the unity of the Kingdom of God will be the topic of the second part of this essay.

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