The title of this post comes from a poem I remember from my school days. The fact that I remembered it is significant because poetry tends not to stick with me for some reason. In the poem, two neighbours are getting together to repair the rock wall between their farm fields. The younger wonders why they bother since they get along well and know where the boundaries are and won’t have problems over the lines. The older neighbour justifies the work by telling his friend, “Good fences make good neighbours”.
Skip ahead to the present day. I am a pastor, a teacher and an occasional pastoral counsellor. In my professional life, I have discovered that this poem learned long ago is actually a powerful statement of good inter-personal relationships. I don’t remember who wrote the poem but whoever it was must have been something of a psychologist to recognize an important reality about relationships. Of course, we don’t really talk about fences when we talk about the way we relate to people–but we do talk a lot about boundaries and an important truism about relationships is that good boundaries make good neighbours.
Unfortunately, there are a great many of us who have very poor boundaries. Instead of having a clear understanding of where we end and another person begins, we are often caught in a confused and confusing tangle of over and under functioning caused by weak or non-existent personal boundaries.
I see this a lot in my professional life. Some pastors seem to feel that every issue another person faces is their responsibility–their boundaries are so wide that the whole world is included. So, if someone has a problem, that pastor feels they have to be intimately involved–and the more serious the problem, the more involved they need to be. And given that most pastors have more than one person in their congregation, this over-functioning quickly takes up all their time and energy.
Some people turn their lack of boundaries into a virtue, seeing themselves as angels of mercy being used by God to help everyone make all things right. They have answers, advice, money, used clothing, job offers–anything they can think of to help the need, they can and will find and supply.
But somehow, the individual they are seeking to help gets lost. The individual’s personality and individuality and freedom disappear as the ever expanding boundaries of the helper encounter and dissolve and walls or fences the person had. The helper becomes supreme, so much so that often, the helper succeeds in creating a dependency because the other person has given up trying to maintain their own boundaries.
Good boundaries are important in our relationships. I need to know where I end and the other person begins. I need to understand what is my responsibility and what is the other person’s responsibility. I need to be aware that while I can intervene in the life of another person, I need to have permission to intervene–my desire isn’t enough.
But before I can have good boundaries, I need to have a good sense of myself. I have to be willing to look at where my boundaries should be. Just because I can help someone manage their life better than they are doesn’t give me the right to do that. I need to remember that God himself has good boundaries when it comes to me. Even though he has the right to over-ride my boundaries, he chooses to let me make all the stupid mistakes I choose to make. He gracefully and lovingly offers me help and guidance and direction and all the rest but if I decide to do something really dumb, he lets me and then offers me forgiveness and help and everything I need yet again.
God has called me to a profession that involves me in the process of helping people. But he has not given me the right to trample all over people, doing what is best for them in spite of them. I am called to work like God works–lovingly and gracefully and respecting their boundaries and freedom. Like God, I need to know where I stop and the other person begins. Good boundaries make good neighbours.
May the peace of God be with you.