My junior year, a friend and I decided to apply for the university-owned apartments on campus. She was studying abroad for the spring semester, so we also needed to find someone who was studying abroad in the fall who could take over her room while she was gone. The housing deadline was fast approaching, and we had no leads. I reached out to a Christian fellowship organization I belonged to and it just so happened that there were some girls looking for 2 people just like us. We went over to the apartment to meet them and see the place and decided it would work.
Fast forward to the next semester when we moved in.
We soon realized that these girls never cleaned and had already been living in this apartment for a year. One time, they made dinner and left their dirty dishes in the sink for four blessed weeks. FOUR. WEEKS.
Then my friend left for the spring semester, and the messier of the two moved in with me.
I would like to go on record saying that I am not the neatest person in the world. I don’t make my bed, and I have a thriving clothes chair (the chair where you throw all of the clothes you’ve worn but aren’t technically dirty and the stuff you don’t feel like hanging up). But this girl was next level.
To be fair, she was involved out the yin yang. She was coming and going at all hours. I think she slept ninety minutes a night. If you walked into our room, you would see a clear line down the middle of the room, the exposed carpet on my side, and piles of stuff on the other. The floor, the dresser, her bed, and her desk were lined with layers of clothes, books, shoes, and knick-knacks. It was hard to complain because she was technically keeping everything on her side, and it’s not like she was a drug addict or bringing all sorts of randos back to our room.
That semester, I spent as little time in the apartment as possible. I planned sleep overs at friends’ places and filled my days with studying, practice, and activities so I didn’t have to go home until it was time for bed. I didn’t know how to say, “Hi, person I barely know but happen to be sharing a room with, your general lack of hygiene and cleanliness is stressing me out. Even though you are technically keeping everything on your side of the room, imma need you to get it together.” So I stewed.
A combination of the stress and filth meant I was sick every few weeks. Other roommates will tell you that I eventually learned how to talk about my preference for clean shared space instead of communicating via passive aggressive notes left on four week old dirty dishes. But at the time, I was flummoxed.
You see, I have a boundary-making problem. This roommate situation is just one example. There are several people who I have known for years who insist on hugging me every time we see each other because I don’t know how to say that I don’t prefer hugging without them getting all butt hurt and taking it personally. My therapist, whom I have known for almost a year, still calls me “Mary” because I was too awkward to correct him more than once. For the record, it’s “Mary B.” always and only “Mary B.”
My tendency in relationships is to be compliant or just avoid the person/situation. Given a choice, I just swallow my feelings and Tim Gunn that shirt (“Make it work,” for those of you not familiar with Project Runway). As you might imagine, this does not solve anything. It blurs the boundary line until your stuff gets pushed over into mine and there isn’t a distinction between the two of us anymore.
Boundary issues can exist in any type of relationship. In fact, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership” (Cloud and Townsend, 31). The boundary line between my side of the room and my roommate’s landfill separated my space from her space. But my decision to avoid instead of confront perpetuated a situation that wasn’t good for either of us.
In friendships, setting limits can be stressful. Friendship feels more tenuous than blood or covenant relationships. In their book Boundaries, Doctors Cloud and Townsend write, “It is scary to realize that the only thing holding our friends to us isn’t our performance or our lovability, or their guilt or their obligation. The only thing that will keep them calling, spending time with us, and putting up with us is love. And that’s the one thing we can’t control.”
And yet Jesus practiced boundaries. In Luke 5:16, we read, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Jesus knew what he was about and what was over the line. Think about when he spoke kindly to the marginalized and when he threw the money changers out of the temple. I used to be annoyed when people said things like, “Jesus needed to take time away to recharge and regroup, so why wouldn’t you?” Ok, Brenda, but Jesus also never made an inappropriate joke or swore in front of a pastor or lied to save face. He didn’t make dumb mistakes that he felt like he needed to make up for. What does Jesus really know about being a person? He clearly had a distinct advantage over all of us.
I now wonder how true that is. We don’t get a ton of internal monologue from Jesus (rude), but we do get moments where he does seem quite human. He asked for help and support (John 11:38-44, Mark 13:37). He was anxious (Matthew 26:37-38). He was sad (John 11:35). Jesus did face consequences for his boundaries. He made a lot of people mad. The dude literally got murdered for swissing off the wrong people, for Brenda’s sake. He probably disappointed a lot of people, too. Think about all the people in those big crowds he didn’t heal, or the fact that he traveled within a restricted geographical area during his life.
But he was one man. Fully human, fully divine, but still just one man. Sure, that drove some people away. But it drew others in. I think Jesus knew that his boundaries made him a better friend, servant, and leader. And they will do the same for us.
Note: Please dive into a deeper understanding and more pragmatic discussion of boundaries before doing anything drastic, such as Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend or Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. Wisdom, humility, discernment, and support are necessary, and healthy boundary practices start small with those we trust. Consider reaching out to a trusted friend, a counselor, or finding a support group.