When B found out she had sleep disorder, it made sense to me. I remember the nightmares she’d told me she had when she was young, the desperate look on her face when we hugged goodnight outside her dorm room, her half-joke that everyone was abandoning her to the night. I asked her about her early dreams and whether she thought they related to her sleep disorder. Oh L, she softened, you know me so well. I’d forgotten about those myself. I smiled, the person who remembers people even better than they remember themselves.
My anxious twitch is to text my friends. Hovering over each of my iPhone Favorites, I review what I know they’re up to this week, the last thing we talked about—and I follow up.
How was your mom’s surgery, I text A.
Hope you feel better today, I text E.
Any moves on the housing search, I text D.
Thinking of you as the deadline gets closer, I text T.
I sit back and feel useful. I am clear and confident, drilling into the world of other people’s business.
When M told me that her brother had sexually abused her, I listened all night and didn’t turn away. I asked questions, looked her straight in the eyes, reminded her it was OK to talk about it as she wept and froze, then wept and froze again. I felt proud that I could be there for here, that I could handle it. I went home that night and couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, could barely to talk to anyone for weeks.
In my 20s I learned I was a caretaker, an empath—I took the Enneagram, that personality test that sums you up with one neat number. I took the Myers-Briggs, did my full astrology chart, got all the tests you need to get the words to describe you. And they made me feel good: I am compassionate, a person who feels things strongly.
“It’s that INFJ jam,” M tells me once the Myers-Briggs told us I was an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeler, and Judge, “your antennae are always out for how everyone’s doing.”
“You’re such a Pisces,” A says as she shakes her head. “You care too much.”
I like having a type, a reason I am the way I am. I like the simplicity of the three types (greedy, aversive, and deluded) in Buddhist psychology. But when someone pegs me as a greedy personality type and smiles knowingly, sometimes I mostly feel sad. They nod at me knowingly and say, that explains it. No more has to be said. I feel lonely, then, flat in just being myself.
I’ve always been obsessed with other people’s business. You can call it gossip if you want to, but it’s not usually mean. I just collect other people’s business and remember it. It runs in the family: my grandmother would listen in on other people’s conversations across a restaurant and report back to everyone else at the table about who hated their food, who was cheating, what was up with the sad couple in the corner booth. I watched, and I learned it from her.
In high school and college I was known for tuning in to people’s stories, prized as an advice-giving friend because I always remembered what people told me. I remembered who else they’d had crushes on, the early hurts they’d confessed to me. I always remembered, always cared.
It was abrupt, then, when I started learning about “healthy boundaries.” When I lay in bed for weeks after helping a friend through a psychotic break, people started to tell me I needed to get my shit together.
You need to let other people take care of themselves, friends told me, and then “you do you,” that awful millennial refrain. And so I set about “building healthy boundaries.”
Since at least the mid-1980s, counselors, support groups, and self-help books have emphasized boundaries as a way to define oneself, one’s values, and one’s capacities. The term is slippery, for sure, and often misused. In the simplest sense it is recommended that one develop these metaphorical boundaries in order to develop autonomy. Co-Dependents Anonymous suggests many practices for developing boundaries in order to help members not be “controlled by other people’s thoughts, feelings, and problems.”
And so I began to learn that being enmeshed in the experiences of others is somewhere on the spectrum between adolescent and pathological. First a therapist, then fellow college instructors, and then friends—everyone started to tell me I needed to “have boundaries.” Most of them would draw a line front of them or stand up straight as they said it, tall and unmovable.
I tried. I stopped wrapping my whole body around my friends as they cried. I told my parents I was available to talk once a week. I tried responding to emails only once a day. I told my students they could reach me during office hours, not before or after. I too started to stand up straight, nod quietly when someone told me about their hard day. I didn’t offer to sleep over.
It’s true there are good things about boundaries. I get a lot more of my own work done these days, my mind less busy with other people’s business. I’m proud, but I feel a little sad. These days I know more about where I end and another person begins, but sometimes I wonder if being controlled by other people’s thoughts and feelings is really so wrong. Sometimes, sitting gravely a few feet away from someone I love while they tear up, I think: what about boundaries-less-ness? When do we get there? I wonder when I’ll be able to relax, when it will be OK for us to feel things together.
On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur Jews perform tshuvah, usually translated as repentance or return, the return to an ethical way of living that we turn back toward on this holiday of accounting. Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday. I love its strictness, its demands on me, the ways I can take a break from driving my own ship and soften into the rules of the day.
On the eve of Yom Kippur I stand in an urban farm in Berkeley, chilly in the Bay Area night, chanting Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s arrangement of a Yom Kippur prayer: return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
I feel mostly tired. I look out at high dark beds of chard and kale and feel unmoved. Really, me again? I think, Again with my soul? I’m tired of turning inward, and inward again.
The music swells, grand and high, and a waft of sweat smell runs through the tent. For better or worse, there are many of us here, many of us crowded on folding chairs and spilling out onto blankets in the dirt, leaning against the raised beds. We stand together for a silent prayer, and I watch the ripples of clothing, the kids squirming in the row in front of me, the rustle of the rabbi resettling his prayer shawl. And I begin to feel some relief.
For me, Yom Kippur has always been a relief from things being just about me. Oddly enough for a holiday that asks us to bring forth our personal memories and mistakes of the last year, I come to Yom Kippur for the relief of the swelling into something bigger than me. I love the Al Cheyt, the part of the confessional service when we chant all the categories of mistakes we may have made and pound upon our chests. Because we have these mistakes in common—these are not categories that explain me to myself, but categories that explain all of us to all of us. We have these categories because they are things that most everyone does.
Many rabbis have written that repentance in community is what makes repentance possible at all. Because we’re not doing the work of personal accounting alone—we’re doing it in community, for community.
It’s hard to return to the self over and over again— to look searchingly at our own actions and ethics—unless we have a broader community supporting us, giving us structure and reason to continue, telling us that this process of tshuvah matters also to them. There is no Pisces without its Aries moon, there is no type 2 (“The Helper”) on the Enneagram without type 8 (“The Challenger”).
“No one else can do transformation for us, but on the other hand we can’t do it by ourselves either,” writes Buddhist Rabbi Alan Lew. “The possibility of transformation always exists, but we have to consciously turn toward it in order to activate it. At the same time, our initiative can only take us so far.”
Our initiative gets us to the group gathering, the holiday or otherwise, but the rest is not entirely up to us: it’s what happens when we’re together. Many Jews who don’t observe any religious holidays at all return to a Jewish community for Yom Kippur. Who knows why: they feel some vague obligation or guilt, they remember this one from childhood. I think part of it, though, is because they seek the relief from their own individual distinctness.
Yes, Yom Kippur is strenuous, rigorous—the best-known fast on the Jewish calendar, a day on which what we can and can’t do is greatly restricted. But for me, Yom Kippur is one of the most relaxing days in the year, similar to the feeling I have on meditation retreat, because I can be both fully myself and with others at the same time. In both of these situations I’m not being asked to take on everyone else’s troubles, but it’s also not recommended I stay strictly within my own individual boundaries, closed off from others.
And so I am less exhausted when I look over the sweaters and hats squeezing under the tent for Yom Kippur in Berkeley, all of us shielding each other from the fog rolling in. I’m less exhausted because we’re here together, the greedy and aversive types. We know enough about ourselves and our own unique tendencies. It is time to swell together.
In The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes of growing up in Louisiana and being taught by her parents to always nod at people she passed, even “right in the midst of an environment in which harmful discrimination was everywhere.” Manuel writes, and she is careful to note that seeing one another does not mean understanding or erasing oppressive experiences.
Rather, the nod is a simple acknowledgment that both people are on the street, in public, together. “Of course, if we were to stop and think about the person, a whole range of emotions might surface,” she writes, ‘But if we took the tender gesture of the nod as given, without preconceptions, the nod was just a nod. In the zendo [Zen meditation hall] we bow with our hands joined. This is an acknowledgement of something beyond “you and I.”’
The nod indicates that we are citizens together in something beyond, and still boundaried in our own bodies. Whether or not we feel comfortable bowing, all of us can find a way to nod, a way to acknowledge someone else’s presence without assuming we know everything about that presence.
At a meeting to talk about alternatives to racist policing in Oakland, G suggests we each commit to introducing ourselves to our neighbors and offering to make a earthquake preparedness plan for our block. It seems indirect at first, but G explains that if everyone on our block is motivated to stay safe in an earthquake it might motivate them to know one another. It might make them feel more like they’re on the same team.
The implication being: if we know who lives on our block, we’re more likely to call on our neighbors when we need something, rather than to call in an external set of support like the police, a police that at the moment, in my city and other cities, brings with it systemic racism and a disproportionately high threat of violence toward people of color.
The implication being: the thing we call out to for help may not need to be the police. It might not have to be 911. What if the larger structure already exists among us, and we just need to see it? If we know who keeps the water bottles in their basement, who keeps the matches, there is something beyond us, holding us, a larger structure that we’ve created with our own individual presence and skills.
“To a body of infinite size there can be ascribed neither center nor boundary,” writes poet Myung Mi Kim, and so it’s true we must give up something for that larger structure. We don’t have to give up our entire selves— just the sense that we are alone at the center of everything.
“Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside themselves,” writes American psychologist Abraham Maslow, known best for his development of the hierarchy of needs. “They are devoted, working at something,” Maslow continues. “Something is very precious to them—some calling or vocation in the old sense, the priestly sense.”
The priest here is one working in devotion, one devoted to bringing their full strength and capacities to something greater than themselves. While we can’t all be priests or monks laboring constantly in structured devotion, we have opportunities each day to offer ourselves to something greater. Instead of being satisfied with our self-knowledge or erasing ourselves entirely (trigger the panic of the so-called “Me” generation), we can bring our self-knowledge as skill.
And so our self-growth doesn’t have to stop at boundaries, doesn’t have to pause after we get the results from our personality tests. “We imagine we are trying to carry out our own purposes, but without our realizing it, our lives become subsumed in a larger purpose,” Lew writes.
When we bring our attention to our selves in context, we bring attention to the ways we participate in community—see under sangha, tshuvah, community organizing, too—and so we can actually relax into the larger. If we bring our full identities into practice with others, we can function within our identities in a way that is participatory rather than self-involved, and so allows us something beyond.
This “something beyond” doesn’t have to mean God, doesn’t have to mean some New-Agey aura that expands out in pink and purple from our heads as our pupils grow cartoonishly huge. It can just mean citizenship. It can mean, “I know that you and I both live in the same neighborhood.” It can just mean a nod.
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