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My uncle said something last night that struck me and it fits in with so much of what I’ve been chewing on mentally. He said, “we aren’t a society, we are an economy. We aren’t citizens, we’re workers.” He said it ironically, as he and two of his sisters and I were railing at what passes for health care in the United States – at how we commoditized it and made it a business instead of a way to meet the basic needs of human beings in our communities. 

And then this morning, Nicci sent me a Marco Polo (seriously, folks, I’m addicted to this platform and the way we can record videos for just one other person and instead of a dynamic, ongoing conversation, we have to really listen to the other person in earnest, hear their thoughts and ideas, and sit with them before formulating a response) that, among other things, made me think about my parents’ generation and how they were taught (indoctrinated?) to believe that they had to be in service to something bigger, and how that was noble, and desirable, and that martyring one’s self to that larger thing (Capitalism and “Democracy”) was not only expected but lauded. 

But, hear me out: a collective, a community, is only as healthy as its individual parts, and my parents were taught that they ought to eschew their own health and well-being in order to be of service to something else. And if they did a good enough job, they’d get a pat on the head and a pension and Capitalism and Democracy would live on through their efforts. And so my dad went to Vietnam and fought for “Democracy” and came home broken broken broken. And my mom quit teaching and stayed home to raise  children and held on to her marriage with this broken broken broken man in service to her religion, her society (raising “good” children and all that), her country (as if). I know for a fact they both had dreams and passions and I also know that they sublimated those things out of a sense of duty. I know that they weren’t able to ask the question, “What would make me happy?” From time to time, when either of them was particularly tortured and unhappy, they were able to ask, “what would make this suffering stop?” – but  they never saw their own well-being as something that would serve the collective. 

I once heard Gloria Steinem say “if you want to have something at the end of your journey, you have to have it all along the way.” She went on to explain that if we’re looking for joy or a sense of purpose, we have to have experienced it as we go, or else we’ll never be able to recognize it or appreciate it once we get “there,” wherever “there” is (for the record, I don’t think there is a “there” there). But at least one entire generation of people were taught (indoctrinated?) that what they wanted in the moment wasn’t important. They could plan for retirement, to have “joy” and an opportunity to relax and indulge your passions and interests at that point, but until that time, you had to be of service

But a healthy collective is made up of healthy individuals. A peaceful collective is made up of peaceful individuals. The thing we are working for has to also benefit us in some tangible, meaningful way. I’m sure my parents both believed that Capitalism and Democracy would benefit them, but only inasmuch as it prevented other horrible things from affecting them – things like Communism and Socialism, lawlessness and anarchy and amorality. But I can tell you that, while my parents lived fairly comfortable, middle-class lives and they remained safe from whatever demons were out there, for the most part, neither of them got to enjoy their retirement. My dad died at 65 from an aggressive form of cancer (brought on by, you guessed it – his time in Vietnam) and my mom was forced into retirement by Alzheimer’s. Neither of them got the chance to travel or pursue a passion or reap the benefits of their efforts on behalf of That Larger Thing. 

So what if we flip this on its head? What if we teach a new generation of young people that grounding themselves in who they are, what they want, where their natural talents lie, and serving that is serving the collective? What if we teach them that, the stronger and more peaceful and purposeful they are, the more they are able to connect to others with clarity and compassion? And that those connections are what actually serve the collective? What if we don’t place the emphasis on some external thing that needs them to be/act/work a certain way, but instead look at what they need in order to act from a place of security and abundance? What if we make sure that they have what they need (food, shelter, access to the education they choose, health care, a supportive community and family) and know know know that this is what the foundation of our strong collective resides on? 

The kind of service my parents’ generation was built on required more individuals to constantly replenish the ones that burned out. It was this hollow shell of Capitalism and Democracy with worker bees propping it up and it ran on volume so that when some of the bees got sick, others could rush in and replace them. But building our communities from the inside out, ensuring that each individual who is part of it is healthy and has what they need, means that we have a solid core from which to draw our collective well-being. While I spent most of my life saying I wanted to be “of service” and believing that that was an incredibly noble thing, I now think it is important for us to examine exactly what it is we think we’re “in service” to. If what we really want to be is part of a community of care that honors all of us, then our work lies in making sure we are clear on our purpose and passion, that we are able to ask for what we need when we need it and offer our support to those whose needs can be met by us. Taking care of ourselves and being able to recognize our talents and gifts as well as knowing what joy looks and feels like along the way is how we serve the collective. 

Confession: I spent the first half of my life without any discernible personal boundaries. I have spent the last twenty years or so believing that boundaries are the holy grail of healthy relationships. And in the last few weeks, I am really beginning to question whether or not that is really true.

            Before you quit reading (or finish formulating your comeback comments in your head), hear me out. Because I’m not saying we shouldn’t have boundaries in relationship. I’m saying, what if we saw them as a tool instead of a permanent fixture (in most cases)? What if we could use boundaries as a way to press pause on harmful relationship dynamics while we go do some work in a protected way, with the hope that the barriers can be removed at some point to allow us to re-engage in that relationship with an eye toward deepening it and enriching it for the future?
            To be certain, boundaries are often necessary to keep us safe. Continuing to be in relationship with someone who harms us physically or abuses us emotionally, tries to control us or is a source of active pain, is unhealthy. But there are a myriad of ways in which we use boundaries to keep relationships stagnant, to effectively block people who challenge us and spur us to growth that can lead to more awareness.
 
            I recently had a disagreement with a friend I’ve known for nearly a decade. We have a lot in common and have had some really engaging conversations over the years as well as light-hearted, enjoyable times. This particular disagreement came about during the volatile time of COVID sequestering and the burgeoning protests in mid-May, and I think it took both of us by surprise, but it shook me and made me question what our friendship could possibly look like going forward.
            A week or so ago, I had another significant, painful exchange with a family member I’ve struggled to create and maintain healthy boundaries with for decades. Neither of these people are folks I want to cut out of my life entirely, but if I didn’t find a way to respond, I anticipated getting triggered over and over again in ways that felt painful and not productive, or at the very least, holding on to some resentment, because it wasn’t possible to dive in and resolve the issue in a timely way.
            In both cases, I pulled back and stopped engaging immediately, and I began to think about how to create new boundaries in response. It occurred to me at some point that often, we create boundaries in a punitive way – “you hurt me and as a result, I am going to stop sharing certain things with you” – and we generally think about those new boundaries as permanent. I’ve heard from lots of people who say that they’ve decided certain topics are off limits with individual family members, or that they will continue to be friends with someone on social media, but they will no longer follow them, meaning that their posts won’t show up in their regular feed. This is self-protective, but it also means that the relationship is stuck in a place where it won’t be able to grow. It occurred to me that relationships aren’t healthy unless they are dynamic, if both people aren’t allowed to grow together. And so I began to think about the possibility of using the new boundaries I was creating as temporary.
What if, during this time, I work to become more mindful of my own triggers, and really process where they come from, how I react, and what it would mean to move forward with this person in my life? In the past, I’ve created new walls and distanced myself from people and been content to interact with them from that place rather than seeing opportunities for each of us to work on our own stuff and then find a way to come back together and have a deeper, more accountable, more enlightened relationship.
            What if doing the work on my own stuff while I am safe within my temporary boundaries enables me to have a greater sense of compassion for the other person and enlarge my own container so that I can hold that compassion and the opposing ideas with more grace? What if I am able to strengthen my own sense of self, my ideas around what I value and how I move through the world, and then come back to the relationship clearer and more ready to engage on a different level? How would that create growth in myself and the relationship?
            This is, of course, predicated on the fact that the other person is doing work as well, that they are contemplating the nature of the disagreement and their own role in it. And it is my hope that if we are each doing this on our own, rather than continuing to trigger each other by trying to work through it together, we can eventually come to a place where we want to reconnect and deepen the relationship.
            All too often in my own life, I’ve used boundaries as a protective mechanism – a way to wall myself off from folks who trigger me in one way or another – and then I rest in my safe space and don’t do the work to understand how to learn and grow from the painful interaction. Sometimes, boundaries become my own personal ‘cancel culture’ and I write people off entirely. Sometimes, boundaries are a way to convince myself that I am “right” and the other person is at fault, and I don’t need them in my life at all, or that I get to define exactly how they exist in my life. But if I am a person who believes in community care and self-awareness and understands the importance of relationship for all human beings, and if I believe in the ability of each one of us to grow and evolve, and in the power of relationship to help us all grow and evolve, then permanent boundaries have no place in my relationships.
            I fully expect and understand the immediate, gut-level reactions of folks who will call to mind people who abuse others, who refuse to do the work, who don’t want the relationship to evolve because it serves them that it stays the same. I am not advocating for folks to toss all their rules about how they demand to be treated out the window in favor of compassion. I am not saying that it will be possible for every relationship to evolve in this way. I am saying that I hope that every person in my life knows, going forward, that I am working to deepen my capacity for compassion, for building accountability in relationship, and that I will attempt to keep myself available as I can. That doesn’t mean that you are free to treat me poorly without consequence. It means that I won’t use boundaries as a crutch to avoid doing my own work and keep myself small and safe and stagnant. It means that in order for me to be a vital, functioning part of a healthy community, I know that I can’t only surround myself with people who will always agree with me and make me feel good about myself.