In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George is on the run.
His friends have urged him to stop. They’ve told him that God loves the slave that stays under the authority of his or her master. The way Hagar and Onesimus did. This running is so much more serious than he knows; it is divinely criminal. Fantasies of freedom and reunion with wife are luring him forward, completely eclipsing the truth that his final destination is hell.
After ducking from town to town toward the North, George sneaks into a safe house in the dead of night. A rural post of the underground railroad.
Weary, but overjoyed to find his wife there in the company of such warm and compassionate people, he mulls things over at dinner one night,
“This, indeed, was a home,-home, -a word that George had never yet known a meaning for; and a belief in God, and trust in his providence, began to encircle his heart, as, with a golden cloud of protection and confidence, dark, misanthropic, pining, atheistic doubts, and fierce despair, melted away before the living Gospel, breathed in living faces, preached by a thousand unconscious acts of love and good will, which, like the cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, shall never lose their reward.”
I thought about George as I thought about my One Word.
I remember early last year when I began seeing some followers and fellow bloggers talking about their One Word for the year 2013. I was intrigued by it. These individuals seemed to be on some kind of journey. Trying their best to be different in the world, giving off a positive, life-giving purpose through a specific word. Gaining new understanding about life around, and, in the process, about the growth of their own hearts.
For those that don’t know, ONEWORD365 is a community that considers New Years Resolutions as wishful thinking. As an endless list of shoulds that in December are so important and necessary and doable, but by March, are hard to remember, scattered in the shuffle of Life. Their alternative to this is to follow one word throughout the entire year.
Words have a density to them. A historical wake. They are understood differently depending on the location, generation, or season of life of the hearer. They have a thousand different angles. Roots the length of centuries. A word can be spoken and studied and lived out for 365 days and even then, there are still great depths left unexplored.
I have gone back and forth, perhaps too much, over which word I would pick. I have debated between the specific and the general, the easy and the difficult, the spiritually lofty and the everyday practical. I started jotting down words weeks ago. The list was very long. So long that I began to worry my subconscious was trying to get an urgent message out about the need for some major renovation of the soul. I began dismissing the idea altogether.
But then, the other night, I crossed over some invisible red line and fell into a hole of unsafe people, a group of newly reconnected friends that did not know what they were doing to me. I’ll spare you the details, although if you follow me on twitter, you perhaps already know them. If you don’t, then just imagine me stuck in a box filled with booze and blunt opinions and someone shaking it wildly as I try to push my way out. Imagine me standing still by the apartment window waiting for my ride.
On day One of 2014, I woke up with bags beneath my eyes, a metallic taste on my tongue, and the realization that what I needed were boundaries.
I’ve long known this. It’s a thought that has been quietly lingering in the back of my mind. This past year, some conversations have affected me for too long, too many articles have left me foaming at the mouth, 140 character tweets have come at me like left hooks. But at the same time, the word “boundaries” has always carried a kind of uneasiness for me. I have always understood those with boundaries to be a burden on me. I must be trustworthy. And safe. Perhaps to a fault. I must meet impossibly high expectations with constancy lest the whole relationship unravel, and the blame, of course, will be on me, fair or not, it does not matter.
And I’ve also criticized boundaries with the Bible. I have pointed out that we are, after all, called to live in community: stand with one another, even our enemies, the only exception to this being that vague commandment to live “in, but not of the world” (and who knows what that really means). I’ve equated true Christianity with communal living and have found that often the most Christian of places are of the most dangerous.
I should’ve had boundaries. The way I see it now, setting boundaries is not about becoming reclusive and closed off and unavailable to most. It is not about disconnecting from the world. It’s not loading expectations on those trusted inside. Keeping boundaries simply means no longer broadly opening myself up to any and all people, without a thought to how they might wreck me inside. It means spending a few extra minutes mulling over the who what where and why of my evening. It means silencing that inner voice that says self-care is for the selfish.
And I think this extends to the internet as well. I don’t think it is healthy for me to check the Gospel Coalition every now and then, because more often than not, I find something very sad, or infuriating, and I cannot handle it. I have imaginary squabbles with writers a world away, and I know it doesn’t matter, but I cannot break out of it. I might benefit from a boundary there.
On twitter, I think this means starting to understand that there are people behind the brutal tweets. Stand up to them, sure, but their ideas first and foremost, their tone, too, but a boundary needs to be set between critiquing positions and attacking people. A line I have crossed too many times. Hurt too many with uncontrollable retorts.
I also need boundaries against myself. I am someone with a tendency toward self-destruction when I feel anxious or angry or wounded. I am lousy at coping. It is well documented. The other night, when I found myself in the lonely corner of a party, I quietly refilled my drink so as to feel things less. I know better than to nose-dive into drinking when I’m hurt. But I did it anyway. So easily. As if it were bound to happen.
I stayed at a couple friends’ apartment down the road and the following morning, one of my best friends and I sat sobering me up on coffee and talking things through. He’s the kind of person that does not know how to judge you, and yet, lives his life in such holy example. No bent toward self-righteousness, a truly rare kind of person. And we talked about safety and leaning on one another. We talked about our dislike for the word “accountability” in Christian culture, but also noted that, sometimes, it’s affirming to have others hold you to your highest self. Even if that just means being a listening ear the following morning. A phone call in the middle of the night.
Even though my head was sore, my heart battered up, despite my feeling all the feelings, I had a friend sitting across from me who made me feel Safe. Enough. Okay. It was morning. We were drinking coffee. We were laughing. He was helping me sort things out within a safe enclosure, the only place I could. And I found a kind of healing within the boundaries that I had been missing.
I considered George’s “golden cloud protection.” I thought about how my own family and friends have continually made spaces safe. How it is often, in the comfort of safe people, that the presence of God is most intense. The crook of shame is shoved out. The sense of self grows. The inner tendency toward destruction weakens. And I can rest. I can recover. That morning I left the house with a plan for my day, a vision for the following the 364, a dream of a year laced in gold.
My Word for 2014 is Boundaries– What is yours?