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Why Do We Talk About Boundaries So Much?


The therapeutic language of boundaries is everywhere today; a breakthrough word in a chaotic and anxious world. Books, podcasts, YouTubers, wellness sites, lifestyle magazines, chat shows are full of talk about the need for personal boundaries to keep safe and sane. And there is much to commend this movement.


The most fundamental need is regard for human bodies. As stories of sexual abuse and assault have become prominent, the need to protect the body is getting more respect than before. Survivors are giving horrendous accounts of the way other people have abused them, showing no concern for the ability or wish to give consent. There are other, more intangible, boundaries too: the right to an opinion which is not squashed by others or threatened online; the right to feelings that are not dismissed by those who do not feel the same; the right to privacy which is not shredded by people with an agenda.


The end point in the loss of boundaries is the totalitarian state, which does what it likes to its citizens – forced conscription, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture, sham law courts, the imposed cult of leader worship.


In moderate, respectful societies, boundaries are not always clearly delineated. We may know what our own personal boundaries are, but it is likely they are formed by, and remain in, our heads, invisible to others who may transgress them unwittingly. This subjectivity is playing out in the debate about boundaries today; without clarity, there is conflict.


There are overlapping reasons why personal boundaries have gained such prominence. Western culture is individualistic; each person is a self-contained source of meaning. This much is understood and cherished. But we are also becoming more libertarian. This is political – the idea the state should leave the market alone; but it is also personal – the belief that people can live how they want without regard to their effects. A libertarian mindset quickly produces boundaries in others who need to protect themselves from selfish actions.


The deregulation culture that has governed politics for so long also takes its toll. The dismantling of labour laws removed invisible public boundaries around availability. Around the same time, tech advances aggravated the sense that we should always be accessible to others, ready for work and open to interruption. Zero hours contracts are the labour market’s shocking embodiment of this.


These same tech developments mean we are exposed to the lives and thoughts of a panoramic range of people on a minute by minute basis, putting a strain on our own wellbeing. The tech companies and those who advertise on their platforms, meanwhile, have invaded our personal privacy (with spurious consent) to the extent they mostly know us better than we know ourselves.


In a culture where people cater to their own needs and wishes before they look to others, an unfortunate dynamic of selfishness can soon take hold, where people look after themselves, not others, because they are sure that others will not look after them.


Boundaries, then, perform a vital function. Yet we are only autonomous individuals in certain economic textbooks. In reality, we find meaning and personality in relationships. These are fluid and we dip into one another’s souls in conversation and conduct. We want this because the alternative is loneliness. It just means the boundaries are more liquid than the prevailing culture has them. So much so, perhaps, that we need to search for a better name than boundaries to describe the invisible, flexible lines that mark us out one from another.


Those who follow Christ know they live by grace, not a set of laws, but there is still a wealth of guidance over how to do this, some of which barely seem to recognise any boundaries at all. We are called to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, pre-eminently to die to self. Does this mean there are no boundaries? Certainly not, when we see the overarching call to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.


We do not love ourselves when we do not look after our own needs; and we set a poor example to others when we don’t. We love others from the foundation of a love for ourselves, which finds its truest expression in the prior love for God himself. It’s another way in which we should work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as St Paul put it to the Philippians. It may look and feel messy at times, but that’s relationships for you.



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