Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Everywhere I go, everything I read, it seems, ends up talking about boundaries. In earlier blogs, I’ve written about editing a novel about sexual misconduct by pastors and other spiritual leaders. That book, which is about to be released, is most assuredly about boundaries.

The concept of boundaries is a simple one, really. I think that’s because there are all kinds of them in a tangible sense—lines on the highway, fences around yards, even walls in our homes and offices. When it comes to emotional boundaries, though, things start to get fuzzy.

I’ve decided that one of the problems we humans face in this regard is related to something I learned about writing from my 11th grade English teacher. She was talking about the standard foundation of communication—and the bugaboo of sentence fragments.

"Write in complete thoughts," she said. "Don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but.’"

Another student in the class raised his hand. "But Miss Ginter, authors do it all the time in the books you have us read."

"That’s true," she replied, "but you have to understand it’s a rule and the reasons behind the rule before you can get away with breaking it."

When all is said and done, I think most boundary violations are simply the result of people not knowing where they are, or thinking they’re somewhere that they’re not. Of course, there are plenty of people who know where the boundaries should be, but choose to violate them anyway, and give the rest of us a bad name. The end result is that instead of assuming that another is ignorant of where the boundaries are (or simply hasn’t thought about it), we more quickly project onto him or her motives and intent that simply aren’t there. And go further, even, to act in vengeance or to punish them for their indiscretions without thinking.

There are daily examples of perfectly wonderful relationships destroyed over time because of boundary violations (perceived or real)—ranging from those between individuals, like parents and children or spouses or friends, to those in the workplace, those between elected leaders and their constituents, especially those between nations. John Locke once said, "Where there is no property, there is no injustice." But let you and I disagree where the property line is…well, you get the picture.

Repeated over and over, boundary violations in all sectors of life constitute abuse of the person violated and often result in tragedy. One might think boundary violations innocuous in day-to-day interactions, but they aren’t. Think about road rage, for instance. Definitely a boundary violation there. Just as in road rage, anger is ALWAYS the emotional response to a boundary violation. It’s a good signal, both for the violated and the violater, that a boundary, perceived or real, has been crossed. Emotionally mature people respond to the sign by examining their own feelings to determine where the breach occurred and alert the offender in a respectful way, if the violation is deemed to be reality-based. On the other side of the line, when anger is expressed toward us, especially unexpected anger, our responsibility is to look for ways in which we might have crossed a boundary without knowing. We can’t read each other’s minds, so defusing the unnecessary feelings around conflict requires that the offender and the offendee sit down together and talk in an atmosphere of mutual honor and respect.

Unfortunately, either none of us is especially emotionally mature or we have abdicated our responsibility in relationship to each other, or both.

That’s especially disappointing to me when I see it in my Christian brothers and sisters, because Jesus talked about boundaries all the time. In fact, I dare say that it’s all he talked about. In my way of thinking, love itself, in the way he described it in countless parables and demonstrated it with everyone he met, is about drawing the line carefully between ourselves and others while savoring the mutually shared bond of relationship as children of the Most High God. Our singular mission is to remember first the value we have to God and then to extend that esteem to everyone we meet–from family members to friends to bosses and subordinates, to the customer service rep on the phone to the President or the Pope.

The tragedy of boundary violations is not just on the side of the violated, however. If we plow through the "fences" of others, we rob them of their ability to focus, unassailed, on developing and claiming their unique gifts, of reaching the highest purpose for which God created them uniquely. But we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to receive those gifts. I wonder sometimes how much beauty we have squelched, how much love we have rendered impotent without realizing.

As the poet Robert Frost once wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." He had a point. So did Jesus.

"Let not the sun go down upon your wrath."

Peace be with you.

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One thought on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

  1. Love thy neighbor as thy self also involves respect for self and other. There is the boundary. Good essay! You need to publish more! You’re good!

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