Bound By Our Boundaries

My participation in Jewish communal life following retirement from the pulpit has afforded me new vistas into the orbit of boundaries.  Some institutions are defined by their religious and hierarchical planes of participation and distinction while others have gained newfound popularity through the reduction of distinctions and gradations.  While one might conclude that the former spaces appeal to more “black and white” audiences and the latter to a more permissive and liberal clientele, the mix of human nature yields a different result.

Boundaries, argues Prof. Eric Kaufmann, are essential to the matrix of human identity:  as we hash out the characteristics by which we associate with others and through which we belong to groups, certain markers arise that determine who is in and who is out.  Our best attempts to be inclusive lead, de facto, to the creation of delineators.  These are deeply ingrained in our society through social conventions (e.g. schools, sports, organized religion) and reinforced by our material interests.  Add to this the geographic boundaries of ethnic and national identity, which peoples maintain even as they traverse physical borders; the expressions of newcomers and their more naturalized descendants emanate the hallmarks of earlier places of residence, over a period of decades past the respective migrations themselves.

We are left, therefore, with the responsibility to arrange and be mindful of boundaries in a way that is healthy both for ourselves and for those around us.  Better knowing ourselves, writes therapist Dan Loney, allows for the set-up of healthy boundaries and, in turn, setting healthy boundaries is a pathway to the discovery of our true selves, the immediate benefits of which can be increased confidence and energy.  Loney counsels that we reframe this exercise into a quest for defining our personal values; the more we value something, the more evident our boundaries, however subtle and unintended.

And, for those who are unabashed about their defined boundaries, the endeavor of not fashioning them into weapons becomes paramount:  “Every time you feel disrespected or unloved, this is not your cue to say, ‘Respect and love me or else…’ That’s not a healthy boundary. That’s an unhealthy threat. Just like it’s hard for you to healthily change, you also have to consider it’s just as hard for others to healthily change. However, if there is an unwillingness on their end, you’ve got to begin to consider the nature of your identity.” (Loney, 2019)

The current vigilance around the world related to COVID-19 (known also as the coronavirus) has pushed our communities to establish new and startling boundaries that threaten our sense of security even as they are designed to protect our safety.  As I witness the cancellation of ceremonies, sporting events, semesters, and other large gatherings, I cannot help but reflect on the great irony of this coping strategy:  historically, communities have coped with external threats by coming together and quashing barriers.  Even in normative times, our byways of affirmation and collective identity are powerfully manifested through parades, assemblies, rallies.  In the Jewish tradition, the concept of minyan (a prayer quorum of ten) is among the building blocks of our interaction with God. Indeed, we are grappling with a new challenge of mind over matter!

In the end. the only axiom is that our identities ride our boundaries, be they perennial or provisional.  How we live in relationship to boundaries defines us – in both trying times and otherwise.  Keeping to some level of discretion and delineation is a staple of human wellness.  Maintaining those bounds amidst both fear and temptation is the pathway to resilience.

Works Cited:  Loney, D. How to Set Healthy Boundaries – Part 1 (Awareness), weblog post 02 May 2019. https://www.danloneytherapy.com/blog/2019/5/1/how-to-healthily-create-boundaries-part-1

About the Author
Rabbi Bernard Gerson is a Consumer Service Associate at Anthem / Blue Cross-Blue Shield. He is enjoying the early days of his second career, following his retirement in 2018 from a 30-year tenure as a Congregational Rabbi and Judaic Studies Teacher. He remains active in Denver's Jewish community as a public speaker and community organizing activist.
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