Every fall, I turn into a bad neighbor.
Seattle and its suburbs are hilly, and my house has a higher elevation than my neighbor. From my front yard property line, it quickly drops about three feet to their yard. For the past few autumn seasons, many of the felled leaves from the maple tree in my front yard would blow out of my yard, down the decline, and into their yard. Sorry neighbor!
But this COVID-19 season, something changed: my neighbor installed a long privacy fence at his property line (actually, two of my neighbors did…unsure if that’s a commentary on my trio of loud curious young daughters or just a coincidence!). So this autumn, I could see the difference in this photo: My leaves piled up on my side of the fence, and his side was kept reasonably free of the majority of the interloper leaves, so I could rake them up responsibly.
With apologies to Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, in this situation, this fence actually will make me a better neighbor. It keeps my leaves in my yard, and I can deal with them like a mindful member of our social contract.
Boundaries in a time of COVID-19
Like the fence, this COVID season of life has created more boundaries in most of our lives. The constrained containers of working from home, the haphazard renovations that allow for smaller rooms with more zoom call privacy, the circles on the Starbucks floor where we can stand, the one-way aisles in the grocery stores. These restrictions increase our physical distance and force more virtual relationships.
But we added these boundaries to save lives, even if they bring up more mental health and physical health challenges. We added these boundaries and destroyed so many small businesses so that more of us could be around when the pieces could start to be put back together. But the longer we live in these boundaries, the harder it is to thrive.
For many of us, the COVID restrictions and boundaries subtracted from the outlets for self-care.
- The good news is, if we know about it and if we have the privilege to invest time or money in mental health care, we’ll hope the good days outnumber the bad until we get through it.
- But the bad news is it also reduced those outlets for the problematic people in our lives.
Boundaries bring conflict
If you have a partner or family member or boss/coworker that is used to pushing or violating boundaries, or doesn’t seem to be aware (or ignores) the expressed norms you expect, this COVID season has likely lessened the opportunities for these violations to occur. Huzzah! But then you might wonder why those avenues that do exist seem to be even harsher and more pushy than usual! What gives?
The frustrating truth is shown in my front yard: when you put up a better boundary, it may be that people who are used to unloading or relying on you find they are without release. Their junk accumulates on their side of the fence, and they get frustrated with you for not being a predictable venue of release. The usual patterns of unloading and relief were disrupted for those who do not have healthy outlets.
So little wonder those problematic people are even more problematic now than before: they don’t have their usual outlets and their junk is just piling up rather than being dealt with. It’s not you, it’s them, but it is about you if you are practicing better self-care.
Self-care Boundaries are Biblical
In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and then the text reads that a revolving door of people came to him for healing. He healed “All” the sick and possessed, drove out “many” demons and cured “many illnesses.” The next day, Jesus left before dawn to a solitary place, then instructed the disciples it was time for him to go. The disciples say “but everyone is looking for you!” and Jesus replies that he must go to preach in a new place because “that is why I have come.”
Jesus knew he could stay in one place and be doing good work, healing and helping people. But he know that if he didn’t put up a boundary–move to a new place, in his case–that he would be stuck in that work instead of the work to which he is called. There were a ton of leaves to rake the next town over, and that was the mission to which he was called.
We can learn from Jesus in this:
- Jesus took a mini-sabbatical first to try it out. To set up a mini-boundary (a solitary place) to see how it felt to his spirit. You don’t have to take the big plunge or do the hard-line first. Try a smaller one and see how it feels.
- Jesus shows that the boundaries provided another opportunity for him. In Mark, he was only healing and casting out demons, but after his mini-sabbatical, he felt compelled to go to the nearby villages “and preach there also.” To preach as well! To share the message along with the miracles. The New Testament would not be nearly as compelling with only the miracles of Jesus (like a reverse Jefferson Bible?), and that fusing the message with the mission is what we are called to as well.
Boundaries for self-care look different in a time of COVID, and they can be opposed heartily by people who depend on a more porous existence. But by building them up, practicing self care, you are better able to participate in and funnel your energies to the mission to which you are called.
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