Thursday, February 14, 2008

Boundaries, I

“It’s too facile,” said my husband after I had treated him to my theory of Western Civilization as an extended essay in adolescence.

“You are entirely correct.” I answered after a pause to think. “But – perhaps I am being facile for a reason. Isn’t facile what the adolescent mind is all about? Remember the sweeping theories you had at eighteen?”

Among my circle of friends and in my diocese at large, people are reading and admiring Edwin Friedman’s posthumously published book Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Its sweeping theory is that as a society we have lost differentiated leadership. It is a book about boundaries. This should come as no surprise. Friedman was a rabbi. Boundaries are a great theme in Jewish law. God is One. Humankind is another. Wool and linen are not to be worn at the same time. Meat must not be served with milk. Honor your father and your mother. They gave you life but you are not them. In a community set apart for the service of God, boundaries within the group and with other groups are essential. Boundaries help me establish my place in the scheme of things.

Friedman uses the human immune system as his metaphor for differentiation within the collective. The human body is an ecosystem of interdependent, yet distinct, cells. A healthy immune system guards the integrity of that system. My immune system makes it possible for me to live among others without getting every passing virus. It can tell me when it is time to rest and heal. It can even ward off cancer and other serious illnesses that seek to break me down.

Interpersonal boundaries are another version of the body and its immune system. As human beings, you and I are part of the same human condition, but we are also distinct. I cannot minister to your pain if it keeps getting mixed up with my own. I cannot truly celebrate your joys if I am nourishing my resentment that those joys failed to happen to me. I cannot lead if I do not honor the integrity of us both.

As a teacher steeped in Jewish law, Jesus was very good at maintaining the correct boundaries. He did not catch the diseases of those he healed. He was very clear about the distinction between earthly and heavenly things. He called Peter “Satan” when Peter thought like a lump of dirt and blubbered from the fear of death. Jesus knew everything about everybody but he did not succumb to the dramas going on all around him. And yet, Jesus is rarely taught this way. Instead, he is portrayed as one who breaks boundaries down.

As Arnold points out in Life Conquers Death, “crossing boundaries is [Jesus’] typical activity.” (p. 42) We see Jesus hanging with Samaritans and tax collectors, centurions and unclean women. All true. But hospitality is not the same thing as a world without boundaries. Nor are factions like Jew and Samaritan, Democrat and Republican real boundaries. These are but different ends of a social continuum. The factionalism that Jesus crossed over was like the liver fighting with the kidney. He told them to stop fighting and to heal.

Adolescents love factions. I remember dividing the world into desirable people, sometimes known as an “in” crowd and creepy people who were beneath even my contempt. My friends and I climbed hills and looked patronizingly down upon the suburban world at our feet. We would grow wings and become, not citizens of these United States of banality, but explorers of the world, bringers of radiant joy, artists of the floating world. Instead, because the world encouraged us to remain young, and because we were a great deal more ignorant than we fancied ourselves -- Joseph Campbell described us as taking on the gods in our diapers -- we are now experiencing the wrath of that which we were too arrogant to believe.

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