omission or boundary?

One day, while I was working in my garden, a neighbor, (I’ll call her Linda) walked by and asked if she could help. I’d seen her around, had said hello, knew she lived down the block, but that was it. We’d never even had coffee together.

Linda was a tough old broad who carried herself like a stevedore right off the docks. Her rough edges said she’d duked it out with life and lost most of the battles. But I took her offer as a kind gesture, considering I was covered in mud trying to move some earth around to make a rise in that part of the garden.

Gardening to me is a sort of meditation where I find myself thinking of nothing but what is in front of me. It’s my way of calming my monkey-mind to focus my energy, but that day, I welcomed her into my inner sanctuary without thinking. As we worked along side each other, she talked about her life, her past, the gossip in the ‘hood, her opinion of other neighbors, yada yada yada… I began to regret opening the gate into my little world since it took real effort to stay focused on my mud while listening to her.

After the first half hour, she began to speak about her family. “I just know you’ll understand this,” she started this next phase of conversation and inside I groaned. I seem to have some mysterious ‘open for business’ sign on my forehead that gives people permission to tell me their darkest secrets–whether I want to know them or not. It’s always been awkward finding myself in possession of someone else’s secrets. But, I didn’t have the heart to interrupt her and she wasted no time in getting to the juicy parts.

“I had two older brothers who’d never leave me alone. I couldn’t even take a bath without ’em hassling me…they thought it was pretty damned funny to bust in and piss in my bath water…” I stopped in mid-air with my shovel, trying to reconcile the word hassle as a description of this scene. But she didn’t notice and continued talking as she dug beside me. “They’d make me stay in the dirty water, laughing their asses off… sometimes, one of ’em would even shit in the water… thought it was pretty f–king funny too. And they’d say, ‘Go on, wash up…”

I was now entirely immobile with this information. I didn’t even know this woman’s last name, and now I had a horrific image stamped in my mind. I must have mumbled something inane like, “That’s horrible…” but I could see that to her, it was absolutely normal— something all brothers did to little sisters. I suppressed the urge to signal a big T for time-out. Her matter-of-fact tone made it that much more obscene, but what was truly disturbing was that it was clear she had never had any sort of professional help with it. Still, I asked if she’d ever gone to therapy and she just snorted, “Shit, no!” as if I was implying something even more undesirable than what had happened to her.

I couldn’t get her story out of my mind. The image of a little girl sitting in a bath tub full of water while her brothers pissed and shat into it stuck like Tar-Baby for a week. But something else bothered me: I was actually angry at her. I felt threatened. Claustrophobic even. Out of all the possible reactions I could have–pity, compassion, sadness, why anger? In principle, I felt these things, but not in fact. Something else threatened me. Some part of me was deeply insulted. Was I insulted for her? I asked myself. No, I was insulted by her telling me this story when we did not have enough history between to actually have a relationship.

But what was the threat? Finally, I realized that by revealing this horrific secret, she was, albeit unconsciously, trying to fast-track a friendship with me and call upon the kind of intimacy that is only built over years. By making me a keeper of her secret, however reluctant I was, she had assumed a closeness with me that wasn’t there. Moreover, it was a Tar-Baby because it came with an unspoken demand for me to reveal something equally secret about my own past. Ah hah! I thought, this is why I’m angry. I felt cornered and stripped of all those tiny choices made over time that forge a close relationship.

In ‘The Ways We Lie’, when I write about omission, I am talking about a very different thing
—to omit a critical piece of information. But the operative word here is ‘critical’. For example, to invite a close girlfriend over for dinner and fail to mention that you’d also invited her nemesis ex-boyfriend is a form of deception. It strips her of her choices.

Boundaries, on the other hand, should not be confused with omission. Boundaries are self-protection. They are wise. They decide whom to let close to you, how close and when. They’re dependent on authentic relationships built over time, when the real measure of the other person can be determined. For example, I rarely reveal that I am a writer to acquaintances and neighbors. I have found that often, people treat me differently and put me on an unearned pedestal. Writing is, to me, just the work I do, no different than teaching, building bridges or selling widgets. It doesn’t make me a better neighbor. I’m still a horrible housekeeper. I can still be a pain in the ass when I’m grouchy. But this boundary protects me from the kind of isolation that celebrity-worship imposes. Does that make me a liar? No. Because it isn’t a piece of information that these acquaintances need to know. It’s not critical to our relationship.

Linda’s lack of boundaries had nothing to do with revealing critical information to me. This was the kind of thing you tell someone who can do something about it and I certainly couldn’t. I’m no social worker. Had we been friends over time, become equals and built trust between us, I would have felt very differently—I would have felt compassion, pity, sadness for her. But as it was, it was a form of manipulation on her part. Now, I would have to treat her like a close friend when she was not. 
The most uncomfortable part was about to come with Linda. Several times that week, she’d knocked on my door, asking me for a cigarette or a cup of sugar and I obliged her. But, then, one day, I came out to do my daily deadheading and discovered her sitting in the private little alcove where I drank my tea and wrote in my journal. My knee-jerk response was to ask her what she was doing in my yard. She was deeply insulted. Immediately, I wanted to apologize for being harsh, but some wiser part of me zipped that reaction. This was a person who’d taken an inch and had set her sights on taking a mile very soon. I didn’t appreciate her assumptions. I did not want to be buddies. And I did not feel it was necessary to explain myself. Awful as this sounds, even to me, I knew that it was a choice that I was entitled to make for myself. I had drawn a line in the sand. That’s a boundary.

©2011 Stephanie Ericsson