Higher Living Reflections

Setting Boundaries

Love they neighbor, but don’t pull down your hedge. – Ben Franklin, Sayings of Poor Richard

The ancient Mesopotamians were likely the first to erect fences since they were at the forefront of the Agricultural Revolution. Fences made sense in that interlopers, both two- and four-legged, likely helped themselves to the fruits and vegetables of their labor. Eventually, their communities grew into villages, then towns, and finally cities, which would become vast centers of power, fortresses encircled by high, ostensibly impregnable, walls.

We have come far since Mesopotamia, though the principle remains. Walls provide protection, but they also can lock or trap people inside involuntarily. Jails and prisons. So, they can constrict as well as restrict.

No wall has ever been built that cannot be breached. According to myth, the walls of Jericho tumbled when the Israelites blew their trumpets, and the Greeks surreptitiously got their wooden horse behind the walls of Troy. The catapult destroyed castles and fire made short work of wooden forts and stockades. As the Iron Curtain rusted, it proved not to be impervious to the flow of radio communication.

Fences and the like are often legal demarcations, therefore definitive. Boundaries, however, are not always as well-defined. In fact, they can be nebulous, a “sort-of-here” delineation. Correlative conceptually to boundary is territory, which suggests an open, broad expanse of unsettled land. Think of animals “marking their territory.”

We metaphorically use barrier and territorial words to describe our human condition. Gene Autry’s song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Hedging bets. A wall of distrust. People barricading themselves in. Entering new territory professionally.

It is helpful to think of physical boundaries when considering one’s personal boundaries and the metaphorical language we use to describe the parameters of relationships. E.g., drawing a line in the sand and parents setting boundaries with their children. Both are non-permanent. An ocean wave or gust of wind can erase a line in the sand instantly, and as children mature, they need broader ranges to roam.

Interpersonal boundaries are similar. The more trusting we are with others, the more we are likely to allow them in and even take up residence in our inner space. To drive the point home with students, I would ask one to stand several feet away from me. I would make small talk as I slowly edged nearer, asking questions such as how lunch was. You can imagine the discomfort he felt when I got closer than arm’s reach. After all, it was his teacher entering his space rather than a friend.

As it is with gardens, farms, and ranches, various unwanted interlopers enter our personal spaces and cavort where and as they wont. Which presents a challenge for the individual: How to deal with them? Perhaps by first asking oneself pertinent questions: Why are they there in the first place? Did I invite them in? Did I allow them in? Did I set the terms and conditions from the beginning?

Maybe the intruder took for granted s/he could do whatever s/he wanted because s/he got little or no resistance in the past. In so doing, s/he gained control much as the Greeks using their wile against the Trojans.

Whether the intrusion is into one’s actual living space or personal life, it is a violation of one’s territory. Which prompts another question: How well did I mark my territory, if at all?

Personal boundaries are correlated to one’s inner power. Not only does every person have the right to define and set his/hers, but they are also critical for healthy relationships. For without them, resentment along with frustration can set in along potentially leading to greater unpleasant outcomes.

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  • Allynn Riggs
    May 11, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    While reading this blog on fences and boundaries I found that I was thinking about my current book. I am having trouble with a P.O.V. character, one of the antagonists, who seems to be oscillating between being open/ cooperative and being closed mouthed and secretive. Your observation about a person’s boundaries are intimately connected to their inner power and how well that person marks their territory has shed some light on this troublesome character. Plus, I have been putting up my own fence about writing a particularly enlightening scene from this character’s P.O.V. And now I have an understanding of the character’s ‘broken & tattered’ inner boundaries and her struggle to recognize and rebuild those boundaries in better ways for others and, more importantly, for herself as she strives for acceptance and belonging on her terms.

    Thank you for the insights. You’ve helped me move forward toward the completion of book four.

  • Laurel McHargue
    May 11, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Jerry, your piece immediately brought to mind Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Here’s a piece about that echoes some of your thoughts: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/150774/robert-frost-mending-wall

    Again, you’ve given me lots to consider, particularly in terms of personal boundaries. I’ve always been “an open book,” much to my mother’s chagrin over the years. She always cautioned me about protecting myself better, but I generally railed against that idea. Now, with a pandemic still unimpeded by any wall we could imagine, I am finally hearing my mother’s words and guarding myself more.

    The old “this too shall pass” parable is not as convincing as it once was, but I will cling to my optimism and believe in a day when boundaries/barriers/walls will be less important.

  • Rick Posner
    May 11, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    Lots to think and feel about here. I taught at a school where personal and social boundaries were purposely blurred. This created a wonderful but scary opportunity: the chance to actually connect and get close to each other. It did serve to make the community an organic, living environment, not just some cheerleading kind of phony “school spirit.” Maybe it’s not for everyone but, I can’t help but think… It could be.

  • Angela M Skiffen
    May 17, 2021 at 9:35 pm

    I feel like this was a birthday present for me. I’ve been reading and rereading yours and Allynn’s about personal boundaries. As women we were “programmed to be good wives and moms”. A woman’s duty to everyone but herself. Years of this wears one down, until you begin to reflect on who you were and who you have become. So, when you decide to rediscover yourself and rebuild those boundaries you find yourself up against anger, resentment and even fear that YOU have changed. At that point one can either remove the walls and remain a doormat, or stand tall and proud and let them either accept you or not. I choose to stand tall and whether I am accepted or rejected in rebuilding my life, I have won!