Their Best, Our Boundaries & Grief

“Do you think people are doing the best that they can?” A few weeks ago I listened to the final episodes of Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, where she explored this question. Reading an excerpt from one of her books about a encountering an almost comically difficult person in a very challenging situation, she shows us what it can look like when we, as she did, adamantly answer, “Hell no!” As she unpacks her experience of being filled with anger and resentment and wrestling with “getting back into her integrity,” she realizes that instead of practicing good boundaries, she got stuck in judgment.

“Very early in my own work, I had discovered that the most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. It surprised me at the time, but now I get it. They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need, and they don’t put up with a lot of shit… I assumed that people weren’t doing their best, so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard and when you want to be liked and you’re a people pleaser hellbent on being easy, fun, and flexible, it’s hard. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to say no. They say yes when they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

Brené Brown, Living BIG, Part 1 of 2, Unlocking Us

In the second episode of this two-part series, Brown digs into the work we need to do when faced with difficult relationships and situations. I’ve been mulling over how these ideas might connect with what my posts have focused on lately–Mennonite Brethren (MB) leadership’s posture and actions toward LGBTQ inclusion.

What if MB leadership are doing their best?

What?!? Refusing dialogue and shutting down community discernment? Running roughshod over people to censor stories and experiences they don’t agree with? Kicking out churches and washing their hands of any guilt? Am I crazy for suggesting that’s their best?

What might it mean if we accepted that it is?

It might mean our anger, resentment, anxiety, apathy, or any other difficult feelings, are a signal that our boundaries are being violated. Brené Brown often summaries boundaries as “What’s okay and what’s not okay.” Are we being clear with ourselves and others about what is okay and what is not okay with us? When those boundaries are being disrespected or violated, how do we respond? Are we respecting ourselves enough to stand up for ourselves?

In my experience, MBs often suppress conflict by reinforcing a culture of submission and compliance. In the name of “peacemaking” or “community” or “unity” or other cherished values, we turn up the pressure to avoid rocking the boat, appearing difficult, or taking up too much space.

“We can’t talk about that now because it would upset people and we don’t want to risk losing people or their giving.”

“I don’t want to be the cause of conflict, so I’m just going to let it go.”

“Be patient, when people are ready (more comfortable), we’ll revisit this.”

“We have to focus on women in ministry; we can’t get distracted with LGBTQ issues.”

“Leadership is not prepared to take this on, so you really need to respect their wisdom (or authority).”

An effective way to control people is to get them to control themselves. “Submission” is a concept that is particularly susceptible to being used to abuse power. When we feel anxious, angry or resentful, can we tune into those feelings and listen for what they might be showing us? What if instead of suppressing those feelings (they usually leak out in hurtful ways), we feel them, learn from them, and ask ourselves what boundaries we need to set? As we are more honest with ourselves and others about what is okay and what is not okay, might we learn to better support the real needs and concerns in our communities? Might we better organize in order to influence change? Might we need to leave relationships or situations that persist in disrespecting or violating our boundaries?

Accepting that this is their best might also mean we need to turn toward grief.

Brené asks her sister who is co-hosting these episodes with her: “How often do you see grief as the thing that we’re trying to avoid with our anger and believing that people are just making shitty choices?”

“Oh, most of the time… when we get to the place that we can say, ‘Okay, yes, this person is doing the best they can,’ then we are no longer holding out hope for change. And so, before we get there, part of the reason that we’re so frustrated and angry is because we keep thinking they’re going to change or something’s going to happen and it’s going to be different. But when we get to the point where we can say, ‘Okay, they’re doing the best they can, what does this mean? What comes next?’ Then it goes into, I’m not bargaining anymore. I’m just there saying, ‘This is what I’m going to get. What do I need to grieve? What do I need to be okay with?’ And then it’s like, ‘What are the boundaries that I have to put in place?’”

Ashely Brown Ruiz, Living BIG, Part 2 of 2, Unlocking Us

If we accept that MB leadership is offering their best, and are being honest that their best may not be okay with us, we may feel deep grief. We may come face to face with heartbreaking realities.

“This family member/friend/pastor/leadership/church/denomination is not who I need them to be. Their actions hurt me/someone I love. Now I have to decide what respecting my own boundaries and living in my integrity looks like in this reality.”

“Losing relationships and community and the identity I’ve drawn from them is incredibly painful, but I can’t keep expecting them to change. I don’t want to continue to submit myself to things that are not okay with me.”

“This hurts. It feels like death. Where do I go from here?”

When I left my church community, it was a choice to preserve my own wellbeing. Accessing my grief has come in layers and over time. As I write about MB leadership’s actions regarding LGBTQ inclusion, I am very aware that I am writing from the outside. This is a community and a family that I have already lost. It is also a community I still care about and want to see change, heal and grow (including leadership). There are people within this community who are deeply hurting. Their suffering, often in silence, moves me to speak up. I want to use my voice to encourage everyone, myself included, to live with more honesty, compassion, courage and integrity. Sometimes that will feel very disruptive. Sometimes we need to be disrupted in order to learn and grow.

Maya Angelou’s famous quote is my plea: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” When Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewing of the mind,” I think he’s reminding us that our imagination/worldview/way of seeing and being in this world has been thoroughly shaped by our culture (e.g. patriarchy). Relationship with God, then, is a journey of being thoroughly reshaped by a prophetic imagination. This is a lifelong journey of learning and change. Are we showing up as our whole selves? Are we honestly facing the difficult realities around us in ways that will transform them? Jesus promises that this is the way toward Life.

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