By Susan Anderson

In Focus: Pushing Boundaries

I once believed absolute quiet was required for thinking and writing. My university office provided the perfect set-up; the door could be soundly shut. Surrounded by lupine-blue walls and littered bookshelves, I could create, write, and revise in relative solitude. My colleagues usually respected the closed door. It provided a boundary that enabled the production of thoughtful work.

Two adoptions later, the no less demanding work of motherhood defines my waking and sleeping hours. Time and solitude are in short supply with a two- and a four-year-old careening about our 1,000 square foot house. No office door repels the two youngsters who coil around my legs and drag me away from “work” to play on the floor. Relentlessly, they redirect me to their childhood world, despite my best efforts to define a workspace, to set boundaries, to assert my identity as a thinking person and writer. They force me — no, invite me — to look at the world differently, just as my graduate school and faculty friends did years ago.

Before I completed graduate school and had kids, a friend “gave” me a verse. The occasion was a weekend getaway with my Christian girlfriends, all first-rate thinkers and scholars; the timing was the summer after my first miscarriage. For our morning devotional, we read Psalm 16. My part was, “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance.” This verse isn’t for me, I erupted. My friends looked at me, unsurprised. After years of praying and commiserating with one another, we were sensitive to each other’s hopes and fears, questions and doubts; together we had debated such theological topics as God’s sovereignty and predestination. Now, confronting infertility and facing more medical tests and gynecological probing than I could handle—I was coming up against my emotional and physical limitations. Spiritually I was hitting a wall of doubt: Where was God in the loss of our baby? Why did he feel so far away? Was he really “loving”? Had he ordained that I would be unable to bear children?

Infertility, a profound physical boundary, felt like a punishment meted out by an angry, arbitrary God. These boundary lines have not fallen for me in pleasant places. They are barbed wire hemming me in, I argued to my friends. Even worse, my so-called God seemed absent; I was flailing in this awful place, unsure of how to proceed. Bewildered, I turned in emotional circles, contemplating a vastly different landscape than the one I had expected to find at this point in life’s journey. The path into professional frontiers seemed unobstructed. However, my personal and spiritual path seemed to have run straight into a wall—one that seemed insurmountable. At that point my spiritual map seemed all wrong, its trails and squiggly lines leading off in inexplicable directions. Or, perhaps I was holding the map upside-down?

Borders. Boundary lines. Hedges. These physical metaphors hint at the reality of human limitation and God’s mysterious sovereignty. In pop culture and self-help books, boundaries tend to be discussed as something we humans put up to preserve our own emotional health and well-being. In Christian culture, boundaries and hedges are rarely discussed as part of God’s redeeming work. If we look at biblical history, though, it is fascinating to note that boundaries are foundational—that they are part and parcel of the Christian story, extending from the fall in Genesis, to the limits imposed by the law, to the location, timing and leadership of the Exodus, to Christ’s limiting himself to vulnerable human flesh, to the wildfire spread of the Holy Spirit to the limits of the earth. A Christian perspective actually compels a finessed examination of boundaries, one that gives room for God’s story to play out, its redemptive power to emerge over time.

After initially rejecting the idea of boundaries being “pleasant” – not to mention part of a delightful inheritance — time and experience have led me to a fresh appreciation of the possibilities presented by boundaries. The ones I put in place, of course, tend to be the ones I like. These are the boundaries that (I believe) allow me to do my best in some area of my life, that allow me to serve in positive ways, or that preserve my rest. Sometimes I even draw lines for bad reasons—to avoid, for example, confronting someone who has let me down, or taking on leadership responsibilities outside my comfort zone. Regardless of the rationale, the boundaries I draw seem pleasant and reasonable until some change in circumstance or insight compels me to reevaluate or adapt them.

Then there are the boundaries erected by others or God, or that emerge as situations take their course. Sometimes these boundaries are invisible until I run into them. What is this? I wonder. Is this as far as I can go? But why? I was moving along so well. Reflection is important here. Not all the boundaries we come upon are reasonable, God-inspired, or just. Some walls are nothing more than physical obstructions or crudely built worldly buttresses. I have run into walls of unjust institutional patriarchy. I have confronted boundaries of a more personal and physical nature (e.g., exhaustion and depression). And I have faced walls of secular rejection erected by people who believe Christians are illogical extremists. At first glance these walls appeared daunting and aroused strong emotional responses; however, they also called forth intellectual responses. Intellectual honesty requires that I assess my own part in a boundary’s construction or maintenance. With wise friends and spiritual mentors, I have found it helpful to examine boundaries to discern whether they are real or false, to assess a boundary’s stability and permeability, and to determine whether I need to change course, move on, stand firm, or begin collecting dynamite.

So inevitably I ask, Why is this boundary here? What does it have to teach me? Do I need to backtrack? Does backtracking mean failure? Wait a minute: Is this boundary a signal for redirection?

Redirection, I’ve learned, is a buzz word for parents. Rather than simply yelling at my artistic preschooler, “NO! Do NOT use red permanent marker on that wall!” I try to say (calmly), “Honey, please use this crayon on that piece of paper.” Of course, this assumes she is listening to me, and so often she isn’t, being completely absorbed and enthralled with her project du jour. I’m then forced to physically remove the marker from the tightly-clutched hand and set the protesting artist at the table. It is my unenviable task as the parent to enforce the boundary and explain it (once she is calm enough to listen), and the trick is to enforce and explain in such a way that my daughter is encouraged to keep creating art.

Oh, how I identify with my protesting daughter! As a child of God I have often resisted redirection as I have intently drawn inspired creations on life’s corridors. Capable, goal-directed, sometimes slavish in perfectionism, it is so hard to slow down and stop when that unanticipated stop sign rears before me. At first I resist the interruption, then express outrage and disbelief that my efforts and vision are aborted or unappreciated. The proverbial “time-out” might follow—a time of venting and mourning the work and vision interrupted. That time-out, hopefully, will evolve into a searching time—during which I make an honest effort to discern and comprehend the boundary’s dimensions and implications. How long this all takes is variable—from hours, to months, to a lifetime. Discerning the meanings and implications of boundaries requires reflection, a critical mindset, spiritual mentors, a listening ear, and time. Perhaps the resulting understanding is only partial, but it draws me closer to truth.

How do we learn? The cliché is that experience is our greatest teacher. But for experience to teach me, I have to reflect upon it. It is not possible for me to count all the tomes I have read in my scholastic career. In the end, it wasn’t the number that mattered; it was the monumental effort to distill their key meanings and then focus on a central idea to produce a coherent piece of work that left its mark on me. You can’t cultivate good work without reflecting—neither can you cultivate a meaningful life. Reflecting on past experiences, distilling the input of trustworthy people and spiritual mentors, culling Scripture, making time for prayer and meditation, enjoying outdoor walks—these help me make sense of the terrain of my life. In honest reflection, it becomes clear: the boundaries I choose and the boundaries I come up against reveal my heart’s hungers, beliefs, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. Their educational power is immense.

Among those who have helped me reflect are educated women, who are theologically well-read, wise, and open to the Holy Spirit. These carefully chosen spiritual mentors ask probing questions. They don’t let me off the hook, nor do they duck my questions when I dig deep. They empathize without making my problems their own; in fact, they make me solve my own problems and they don’t supply quick solutions. They might direct me to appropriate reading material. They will pray with me. They will point me toward the grace of a big God, one who is not entirely male nor entirely female. They will point out how the Holy Spirit is active; sometimes they provide insight into how they see the Holy Spirit working in a situation. They will not allow me to over-spiritualize a matter, but will help me to assess the spiritual, emotional, and tactical dimensions of the issue before me. They will help me to learn the art of being angry without sinning. They will exhort me to take paths that are bound by truth and accented by love.

Through conversations with mentors, wise colleagues, and trusted Christian companions, options are illuminated. And because the Holy Spirit lives within us—the counselor Jesus sent—we are divinely accompanied as we walk the bounded path, especially if we ask the Spirit to help us. I constantly need to remember what Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Spirit reminds me that I am not above the one who took on the limitations of human nature and flesh to reveal God to humanity. It is within boundaries that the Son as Witness came, and it is within my own boundaries that I learn the truth of my own nature and witness God’s work as redeemer. The paradox of limitation and weakness, so boldly portrayed in Jesus’ life, is played out in my own—through the limited life of a limited person. This is why I struggle to find the redemptive value of the occasional blocking wall. I am a person accompanied. I am part of the redemption story.

Over time, what once appeared to be a boundary sometimes takes on the appearance of a landmark, a hedgerow scalloping fertile territory. Some walls remain stationary, while others erode. Some walls show themselves unjust and worthy of falling down. Others have a more defining impact. The path to the walls, along the walls, around the walls, over the walls, and through the walls, becomes part of my story. With the help of the Word, Spirit, and wise counselors, I negotiate the walls and learn to live my life in evolving territory.

The quiet office with the lupine-blue walls is now inhabited by another university researcher with a hefty grant. My new office is far less attractive. Its walls are made of cement blocks painted a nondescript white. It echoes with raised voices and slamming doors. Florescent lights wear on my eyes as I pound away at a laptop poised on a wobbly table. Anyone walking through this public hallway in the YMCA can observe me writing, or at least attempting to write, during this one spare hour my daughters are in childcare. My physical boundaries are almost non-existent; but immersed in work in this public place, I hardly notice.

My spiritual and intellectual boundaries, in fact, are expansive, allowing generous space for movement. I explore wide horizons in my small house and YMCA hallway. My mind roams. There is so much room for inquiry and reflection! Though I once pounded on the walls of my so-called infertile life, I eventually discovered jewels were tucked in the mortar—including two precious ones plucked from China and Ethiopia. What other riches will I find as I travel and encounter new and disorienting walls? What other lessons will I learn? Psalm 16, ironically, is now my compass. Verses I once angrily rejected I now look to as pointers in life’s journey. And this is part of the redemption story. Beyond the walls and within the walls, we can look for the true inheritance we are promised. The psalmist calls it delightful. Delightful. The very word is a challenge to cynicism; it is an anecdote to hopelessness; it is an invitation to hope.

About the Author

Susan Anderson worked for several years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a Ph.D. in Mass Communication in 1997. During graduate school, she was an active member of InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship group. Now she spends her time balancing parenting, writing, and house-tending. She and her husband Dean have two beautiful (and active!) daughters, Kendra and Carolyn, adopted from Ethiopia and China.

Comment via Facebook