We’ve all heard that saying for years: that good fences make good neighbors. But, I’m not so sure that’s true.
Back in the early years of this 21st Century, a lot was written about codependency and the need to establish healthy boundaries. At the time, so much abuse and oppression was attributed, and rightly so, to the fact that people often did not establish safe boundaries between themselves and others, particularly with others who suffered from substance abuse or mental illness. Writers like Melody Beattie, Darlene Lancer, and many others have saved the lives of millions of people from the pain and despair due to inappropriate relationships. Often, these tendencies to allow toxic relationships to exist, were passed from generation to generation…tendencies to over-care, over-commit, and over-give.
But, to my way of thinking, we have swung too far the other way. There is a difference between safe, strong boundaries and total detachment. Put another way, there is a difference between enmeshment and isolation.
A dear, sweet friend of mine once told me she had to ignore my emails and phone calls because there was too much suffering in my life and she just couldn’t take it, anymore. To be honest, I have done the same to others. We all have, if we are to be honest. For some people, for some reason known only to God, there are some people who are surrounded by trouble the way the Charlie Brown character Pig Pen is surrounded by dust. I have a cousin whose annual Christmas message is the same, year after year: how many heart attacks and broken bones she has suffered in the past year. Her lists of pain and illness, unfortunately, have become the subject of family jokes. We say we have to laugh because it would hurt too much to cry.
We also say, this is done in the name of self-preservation. Therapists, priests, and doctors are trained in ways to not ingest or hold on to the emotional burdens they pick up and share with people, every day. Prayer ministers have special prayers they pray, for themselves, after exercising their healing skills, in order to detach from any negative energy or emotional weight of the experience. Even the American Red Cross trains life savers to NEVER enter the water to save a drowning person; you are to extend a pole or throw a flotation device by which you can then pull the person to safety.
But my point is this: You DO have to throw the device. You DO have to pick up the pole and extend it. You DO have to at least listen to the person before you do what you must to not let it bring you down. In other words, you MUST pick up the burden before laying it at the feet of Jesus and letting it go.
We have become so fearful of too much stress, too much pain, too much depression and negativity, that we have become skilled at not even looking at the filthy and frozen person holding the cardboard sign at the exit to the mall. Yes, I ask the same questions: where did she get the black magic marker? where did she get the card board? I know not to look into her eyes. I reason that there is no time to explain that while she has nothing, I am tens of thousands of dollars in debt; I have my reasons for not making an acknowledgement that she is even there.
I have heard a priest confess that he no longer walks around town wearing his clerical collar because he is inundated with requests for money. I know of churches that turn their funds for charity over to county-managed agencies and let those agencies determine who gets help and who does not. It is a very tricky situation; there is a lot of need. There is also a lot of fraud. One way to avoid becoming a victim of fraud is to not ever give anything at all. I am no saint and I have been a victim of fraud. Personally, I find this pair of truths to be helpful: What I give to a person in need is between me and God; What that person does with what I give them is between THEM and God. (The one caveat: Always use cash, food, or clothing; NEVER checks or credit cards.)
Back to the issue of fences and self-preservation…Fences are to avoid uncomfortable or messy situations. My elderly dog often poos in my neighbor’s yard. That’s messy. If I catch her doing it, I go over with paper towels and a plastic bag and clean it up. If I notice that the front door is open, though, I usually stick my head in to say hello to Ann who is too weak to leave the house. If I were not to venture into her yard, I would not likely take myself away from my own projects to look in on her.
Fences also muffle noises, which can often be unpleasant ones like family disputes. My family’s ‘loving discussions’ tend to be quite loud. However, I once saved a young woman’s life when I overheard an escalating ‘dispute’ and called the police.
One more thought on neighbors: I have just this week moved the last of my possessions from NC to SC. As I took out the last few loads of stuff to my car, two of the women who live on my street, walked from several houses down, from opposite ends of the street, to ask if I were moving. (I have visibly been moving stuff for the past 4 months.) I have lived in this house since 1992 and this was the first time either one had come to my door. After we hugged good-bye, and I told her I always enjoyed waving to her and her husband each time I drove by, she began to cry as she walked back up the street.
As for self-preservation: What are we preserving ourselves for? A quieter sleep? Sweeter dreams? A more restful cup of tea, alone? It is a true, well-proven, scientific fact, that stress will shorten your life. But, so will isolation. And what is the point of a long life, anyway? To take more naps? To enjoy more sunsets? Sure. But, a long life is also good for having long talks with your great-grand-children (or great-great-grand-children) who can’t seem to be able to talk with their parents, for looking in on neighbors who don’t have any children to disagree with, for sharing a few words of wisdom with the manager-in-training on how to motivate and encourage their teammates, and not to demoralize them.
We have become so skilled at not letting other people’s problems get to us, that NOTHING gets to us, even if it should. I compared notes the other day with an ER nurse who, like myself, was ‘firing’ his doctor because the office staff didn’t seem to care about him at all. In my situation, I got fed up and told the office manager that even though I truly liked the doctor and his skill and demeanor, I felt that no one among the office staff seemed to care about my situation and that I was not coming back; the office manager’s response: a chipper, “OK.”
I do not think fences make good neighbors. Our dogs tend to know our neighbor’s dogs better than we know our neighbors. I think the more exposed and vulnerable we are to the needs of our neighbors, family, and strangers in the community, the more of value we can be to them and to God. After all, this is not heaven. This is the life before the hereafter. Rest, recovery, and rejuvenation are necessary, but most beneficial when they come between bouts of service and compassion.
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