An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Category: Boundaries

Watching people nearly drown

A conversation about what it really means to love

Awhile back, I saw a quote on Instagram that gave me pause. It showed the words, “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you.” But those words were crossed out with a big X, and below that it read: “No. Do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions attached, no wondering whether or not they are worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love, isn’t about what you gain, it’s about what you give.”

I struggled when I read this. Partly because the grammar and punctuation are off, but mostly because I desperately wanted to agree. In principle, I do agree. Or at least I think I do. I’m re-examining what I believe about compassion and generosity, and I think that’s why this quote gave me such pause. 

This belief—or at least a version of it—has gotten me in trouble. It’s caused me pain. It’s been one of my excuses for causing pain to those close to me. And I know I can’t blame this belief exclusively, but the idea of giving with no holds barred has contributed to loss of self-esteem, sanity, peace, possessions, and finances.

So, when I read this quote on Instagram, my gut wanted to agree with it. But as I was getting ready to hit the little heart in the lower left corner, my mind said, “Hold on a second. Can you really love that quote? Doesn’t that go against the narrative you’re learning to live? The one where you have boundaries and don’t let yourself get taken advantage of?”

I’ve spent some time thinking about this now. Trying to reconcile my beliefs about loving others the way Jesus would with my beliefs about setting boundaries and practicing self-care. And while, as always, I’ve left room for my understanding to evolve, here’s what’s helping me now:

In essence, the quote hits on a core belief of Christianity that I agree with 100 percent: Love everyone, no matter what—even if the subject of conversation is a disrespectful coworker or Ted Bundy.

The thing I believe is missing from the quote is context—and maybe a disclaimer or two. What we need to keep in mind is that loving Bundy looks very different than loving the single mom next door, which looks different than loving the homeless man outside the gas station, which looks different from loving your brother or sister.

A wise woman who has done the work on her own codependency told me, “Sometimes love means letting people hit rock bottom.” It might not look, or even feel, like love, but that’s the point of this conversation.

Maybe some people can hear quotes like the one I shared and automatically understand the different contexts. I’m analytical, so I had to pick it apart—spell it out.

I was taught to love; to share; to give. And it’s in my nature to want to help when there is a need in front of me—be it financial, physical, spiritual, or emotional. I like taking action, and I have a hard time not doing something if I know there is something that could, or possibly should, be done.

This type of thinking leads me to interpret quotes like the one shared here as basically saying:

“Paddle your ass across the ocean for someone who may not care that you’re doing so. Heck, swim across the ocean naked in icy cold water if you need to. Fight off sharks if that’s what it’s goanna take. Climb the mountain to get to them no matter what—even if your energy and food supply are low. Climb the mountain or die trying. Don’t stop to evaluate what you’ll lose or the price you’ll pay. Don’t stop to evaluate whether or not the person wants to be rescued. They can’t make it without you and you’re somehow responsible.”

Of course, written down like that, it sounds a bit extreme. But I operated with a mindset like this one for the first 30ish years of my life. And I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

After all, it was Jesus who said, “greater love hath no man than this, that he laid down his life for his friend.” And then, he demonstrated this.

When we look at the whole of Jesus life, we don’t see someone who was consistently climbing up mountains for people who didn’t want help. We don’t see someone who made himself responsible to immediately fix every single problem for every person he interacted with.

Instead, we see someone who was able to hold the dichotomy of being the Savior of the world, while also not forcing salvation on anyone.

Jesus died for Judas too, but he didn’t try to chase him down and keep him from committing suicide. He forgave Peter for denying him, but he didn’t coddle him or pretend like it was okay.

Dismissing Peter’s actions or forcing Judas to accept forgiveness would be codependent. Thankfully, Jesus isn’t codependent. And because of this, we can learn from him. We can take notes from how he interacted and apply that to our relationships with others.

Jesus healed people who came to him, but we don’t see him barging into houses and saying, “I’m here to fix you.” When Pharisees like Nicodemus asked for help understanding, he was honest and offered hope. But he didn’t try to shove that same message down the throats of Pharisees who weren’t ready to receive it.

Going back to the oceans and mountain metaphor, Jesus didn’t swim and climb to the point of exhaustion. He also set boundaries. He withdrew from crowds. He spent time with God, his father. When he needed food on the Sabbath, he picked grain and ate. He put Peter in check when his words were not beneficial. He didn’t let all disciples join him for every adventure.

Jesus knew that boundaries were essential, and he understood that love is contextual. The quote from Jesus is “greater love hath no man…” and so to understand that quote, we must also understand love.

If Jesus is the greatest example of love and even he set boundaries, then love leaves room for boundaries. In fact, I’d argue that it necessitates them. Boundaries are what will keep our love from becoming codependent.

If we go back to the quote that bothered me—the one about mountains and oceans—it also mentioned love. And I think that’s the key. When I read this quote with a broken understanding of love, I think it’s compelling me to give until I have nothing left. To take on other people’s problems—even if they don’t yet recognize them as problems or want help. Even if I’m not  currently equipped to assist them.  

What I think we as humans often fail to understand is that sometimes, love means not climbing the mountain. Sometimes, love means letting the other person nearly drown and hoping that in the struggle, they’ll learn to swim. Sometimes love means waiting for them to ask for help or telling them they’ll have to wait while you put on a life preserver and get some fuel. Sometimes, it means recognizing I don’t have the solution or the resources to fix things, but maybe I can just listen. 

It sounds harsh to say we might need to let someone nearly drown, but that’s why it’s critical we recognize that love is contextual. Jesus didn’t respond the exact same way to every person he came across, and as I mentioned earlier, he also didn’t force anyone to accept his help.

Like I said at the beginning, this is one I’ve been struggling with. Struggling because I’ve done it wrong and I want to learn to do it well. I’ve called codependency love. I’ve tried to fix people’s problems without setting boundaries to protect myself. I’ve been so frightened at the thought of someone drowning that I’ve haphazardly thrown life preservers their way. The preservers may have kept them floating, but my actions didn’t teach them to swim—or help them reach the shore. 

For me, learning how to love well is a daily process, but I do believe that the most loving thing we can do is to stop before we respond to any situation and ask God what is actually needed. He understands the context, and he’s the author of love.

Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

Using someone else’s shower

Earlier this year, I got kicked out of my own shower. It started when a minor leak was discovered in the half-wall between my shower and bathtub. To fix it, the maintenance crew needed to get into the wall. This meant not only tearing apart my shower, but leaving it torn apart for what ended up being two weeks so everything could dry out.

“That’s a long time without a shower,” I told them. I get that not having a shower for a short period of time is a first world problem. That said, hygiene matters, even when you live alone, and washing this much hair in the sink for too long might drive me to shave it all off.

Lucky, for the sake of my own nose and anyone who would have to look at my bald head, they kindly gave me access to a vacant apartment one floor above me so I could use the shower. “It’s one of my favorite units. You’re going to want to move in there,” the maintenance guy told me.

And when I accessed it, I could see what he meant. I don’t want to move, and I don’t need two bedrooms, but it was a nice unit. The two weeks I spent showering there, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd it was to have basically a whole house, with two showers, and two bedrooms, and a fridge, and a stove, and laundry, all just sitting there unused. It was completely ready for people to move in, yet other than when I was showering, it just sat there.

It might seem like an odd place for a mind to leap to, but it got me thinking about the unused rooms in our lives—in our minds, our emotions. As humans, we all own real estate that can be shared with, rented out to, or even squatted in by others. Basically, your life is like an apartment, and anyone who comes in contact with you is visiting.

I think that’s part of the appeal of friendship—we get to share our rooms. When other people come into our real estate, it feels less empty. In much the same way that my presence gave some meaning and purpose to that shower for two weeks, people can bring meaning and purpose to the otherwise empty and unused rooms of our lives.

Once we’ve started to think of our life as an apartment with rooms, and space, and showers, and kitchens to share, the question then becomes, who gets access to that space?

Some people may not make it past the welcome mat—they’ll just talk to you through the peephole or say hi while you stand there with the door barely cracked. Others get into the entryway or maybe make their way into the kitchen for drinks. Then, there are some who get into your more private rooms. They get to see what you keep on the desk in your office, which pictures you have framed above your bed, and whether you hang your toilet paper roll over or under.  

The question of who gets what access is, I believe, one of the most important and challenging questions of relationships. How do we know if we should open the front door for someone? When is it okay to invite them to use our shower? What do we do if we discover they’re squatting in our space?

I think that the experience I had when I got “kicked out” of my shower can provide some insight. First, the maintenance folks at my complex aren’t giving out apartment keys to just anyone. They gave me access to a vacant unit because they knew they could trust me. I’ve been vetted. Before I rented an apartment here, the management company checked me out. Since I started renting from them, I’ve paid on time. I haven’t caused a disturbance. I’ve taken care of my unit.

They knew they could trust me with a unit that’s not mine because I’ve demonstrated trustworthiness. I didn’t just walk in off the street and demand that they give me access to a shower.

The same should be true in our lives. We don’t want to open the front door for just anyone. And even once we’ve let someone inside for a drink, that doesn’t mean we need to invite them to use our shower or hang out in our bedroom.

The idea might sound a bit outrageous when we talk about it in those terms, but it happens. Sometimes, people come in and demand access to our personal, private rooms without first taking the time to build trust. And sometimes, we give away that access without properly vetting them.

I know I’ve done it. And I think that sometimes, in certain circles, we feel like it’s not okay to vet people. We think that because they’re a leader, or a colleague, or a fellow Christian, or even a family member, we should trust them right away. Maybe we see other people trusting them and we feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t join in.

But here’s the secret that can save us a lot of trouble: It is always okay to ask people to first earn our trust. It’s okay to keep them outside of our front door or drinking water in our kitchen until they’ve proven that they can respect that boundary*. It’s okay to say, “you can’t use my shower” or, “I don’t want you looking in that drawer” without explaining or excusing our decision.

And it’s also okay to not invite them in at all, ever. Some people you just say hello to at the mailbox or chat with in the office breakroom (whenever those open back up). You don’t invite them over for coffee. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Christian. It makes you a person with boundaries.

While we’re on that topic, let’s talk a little bit about boundaries. The people who deserve to be in our metaphorical apartments are the ones who respect our boundaries.

When I used the apartment upstairs, I had access to all the rooms. Technically speaking, I could have cooked a meal in the kitchen or thrown a party in the living room. But I only used the shower. That was it. That is what I’d been invited there for. To do anything more would have been to take advantage of the access I’d been granted.

This is something for us to watch for with the people in our lives. If you invite someone in for coffee and find them in your closet, trying on your clothes, they aren’t respecting your invitation. They’re demonstrating that they likely don’t deserve the access you’ve granted them.

Honestly, I feel like I’m the last person who has a right to be talking about boundaries. In the past, I’ve failed to set them, failed to enforce them, and watched other people dance all over parts of my metaphorical apartment I didn’t want them in. While I can’t say that I have boundaries figured out yet, the mistakes I’ve made have taught me a few things.

Here’s what I know: First, some boundaries should go without saying. When I used the shower upstairs, no one had to tell me not to throw a party in the unit or track mud through the freshly cleaned carpet. If I’d done these things, the management company would have had every right to take action—and I’m sure they would be less likely to trust me with another unit should I need it again in the future.

In our lives, with our metaphorical apartments, there are similar boundaries—those that we don’t state out lout to every person we meet but we can still expect them to uphold. Things like, “respect my personal space” or, “don’t lie to me.”

But here’s the other thing I’ve learned: Sometimes, for some people, those boundaries that should go without saying need to be said. There are people who have to be told not to throw a party in the vacant apartment. People who are just so oblivious that they don’t even realize they’ve brought in mud on the bottom of their shoes.

I think (and hope) that identifying those people gets easier the more in tune we become with our own boundaries and the more we value our real estate.

Sometimes, I’ve let people squat in my “apartment” because I didn’t actually believe it was valuable enough to protect—or because I was convinced that anyone who could pass a rigid screening process wouldn’t want to spend time there. Other times, I’ve let people in simply because I placed more value on their needs than my own. They needed to use a shower or take a nap, and I wasn’t in tune enough with my own boundaries to say, “I don’t want you doing that in my space.”

All this takes time and practice, but ultimately, I think one of the keys is knowing our boundaries up front. If you’re going to let someone into your apartment, it’s important you know what rooms they’ve been invited to, what they’re there for, and how long you want them to stay. This makes it easier to recognize when one of your boundaries have been violated.

And what do you do if it has? This is one of the places where I’m still learning. Sometimes, boundary violations are so subtle that I don’t recognize them until after the fact. Until it feels too late.

One thing I do have resolve on though, is that people who consistently violate boundaries don’t belong in our real estate. If someone keeps tracking mud in your apartment even after you’ve asked them not to, you might want to consider not inviting them back—or even kicking them out if that’s what it takes.

As soon as my shower was fixed, I stopped using the apartment upstairs. I made sure the shower looked clean and turned the access back over. If I’d kept acting like I had a right to be there, the management company would have needed to take action.

If you’re like me and sometimes struggle with setting boundaries, perhaps it will help to think about your life like an apartment and yourself as the management company. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to decide who comes in. To vet those who will be in your space. To ensure they earn—and keep—your trust. To require they show you respect.

What’s more, and what I don’t think is said enough, is that you have the right to say no. You have the right to decide that someone won’t get past your front porch—or your mailbox. Just because someone desperately needs a shower, doesn’t mean they have to use yours.

*One quick note about what this isn’t saying: This isn’t saying that it’s okay to keep everyone outside the front door forever, though I definitely understand the desire to do so and the fear of letting anyone get close. But taking time to build trust isn’t an excuse to never let anyone in. It’s a longer conversation we can have another day, but we do need people who we trust, and we’ll benefit from the vulnerability of letting those people into our more personal spaces.

Photo by Skyler King on Unsplash

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