“We cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of another person’s feelings”- Melody Beattie
Just a few days ago on retreat in the KwaZulu-Natal bushveld, my guests and I sat watching a sleeping lion. It was dusk and the sky was ablaze with reds and oranges and the sounds of birds scouting for their respective roosting spots. My guests were starting to fidget because the lion we’d been watching for a good portion of the afternoon wasn’t doing much. With the temperature dropping steadily and this male being one of a coalition of two, I was sure if we were patient we would see some action and likely hear him roar. The core intention of the retreat was to allow nature to be the teacher and so instead of rushing on to search for the next high, something we so typically do in everyday life, I encouraged everyone to rest back, savour the plethora of sounds, smells and subtle activity happening around us and wait a little while longer. The words hadn’t left my mouth before a big white rhino bull emerged from the brush and lumbered towards the sleeping lion. More than being a perfect example of good things coming to those who wait, the interaction was about to teach all of us a big lesson regarding conflict.
The lion was resting soundly and so it took a while before he became aware of the rhino and only sat up when the rhino’s bulking shape was just a few meters away. Rhinos have pretty poor eyesight, particularly at dusk and with the wind not in his favor and the subject in his path stationary, he blundered forwards unawares. When the lion eventually spotted the rhino he turned to face it head on and crouched down low. This new-found tawny obstacle made the rhino stop.
They were now head-to-head on the dirt track, the rhino wanting to use the path that the lion was on because it descended into a riverbed and the banks were fairly steep elsewhere. Typically in the bushveld dominance goes the way of the largest animal, particularly when it’s one on one, but the lion didn’t move. He had established his invisible and yet very clear boundary. The rhino paused for a moment but decided to test the lion and took a few lumbering steps forward. The lion growled, a low emanating sound that is somewhat similar to an engine starting. His boundary had been established when he didn’t move, now he was audibly reinforcing it. The rhino paused for a short while but it seemed he really wanted to head east and with his route options being severely limited he took another two heavy steps forward, bullying the smaller but more aggravated animal. At this point the lion’s clearly staked out boundary had been well-and-truly transgressed and he’d had enough. He charged forward at the rhino and backed this action with a much bigger noise. “I don’t think you heard me straight. Get out of here! Now!” was what it sounded like to us. The rhino jumped back whilst snorting air from his large nostrils and then halted again. He really couldn’t deny having been given the message this time though and apparently decided he wasn’t up for the challenge. Despite his size, he slowly turned and headed back the way he’d come. The lion lay down and went back to sleep.
Boundary setting for many people proves to be a big challenge in life. We’re social creatures and from the moment we’re born we realise that when we smile the people feeding and caring for us dote on and love us even more. Something innate in us makes us fear being unloveable and saying no therefore seems risky. We are taught by our teachers to play nice and at a political level we’re encouraged to drop a topic rather make a fuss. The result is patterns of weak boundary setting that may at first glance seem to reduce conflict but actually make people less safe. One very clear example of this is the #MeTooMovement. Although this topic is complex and a whole other conversation altogether, it is certainly one that indicates women in modern society have been wronged when attempting to create boundaries.
A while ago I read an article by Courtney Martin, that I return to when I’m in need of having a difficult conversation about boundaries that I’d really rather not have. In this article it feels as if the author has read my mind on the matter of conflict. She stated it so beautifully that I believe to have cut up the article would only reduce from the power of her piece, which is exactly why I’ve inserted this hefty chunk below.
“As far as I can figure, I think I somehow came to believe that human relationships are more fragile than they actually are, that humans themselves are more breakable than is, in fact, true. One of the worst lies that polite culture teaches is that “good relationships” are nice — prizing peace over truth and the appearance of easy contentment over the experience of hard-earned understanding. I fell for that. I continue to fall for that on many days, despite the fact that evidence is all around me of the opposite.
The relationships I admire most are not steady or nice; they are genuine, imperfect, held together by unconditional love and emotional courage and a belief in the possibility of endless renewal. The people I admire most are those wise enough not to fight about everything, but to fight about and for the right things, those who don’t idealize harmony, but trust in the necessary beauty of rupture and repair.
My smart friend Katie Orenstein has said that humility is a great value, but taken too far, self-abnegation becomes selfish. If you have something to offer the world — some insight, some resource — holding back actually deprives others of something that might enhance their own lives. It’s not about you; it’s about them.
The same could be said for the great value of equanimity. It’s a powerful and necessary baseline. To pursue peace is wise, but to pursue peace when loving confrontation is actually what’s needed is foolish. It deprives both you and the person you’re in a relationship with of discovering the endurance of your emotional bond. Humans are shockingly resilient; their relationships, no less so.
Maybe, just maybe, the polite culture’s misguided lesson about doggedly pursuing peace, or at least the appearance of it, also shows up in our public lives. Maybe we shirk talking with people who vote for different political candidates or worship different gods because we haven’t developed the muscles to weather disagreement with those in our most intimate spheres. As this political moment is teaching me, as my personal life so often has, the losses of single-mindedly protecting peace above all else are epic.
I aim to grow up, to disavow the polite culture and its unhealthy, inaccurate lessons about human relationships. I aim to pretend I am made of heartier stock until I actually feel it in my backbone. I aim to step into conflict more often, earlier, with more trust in myself, those I love, maybe even those I am supposed to hate.”
The greatest thing I learnt from that conflict and honest boundary setting between lion and rhino was (and I do my best not to anthropomorphize here) that there really were no hard feelings. The rhino found an alternative, albeit longer, route through the riverbed and the lion went back to resting. There was no need for the animals to physically harm or even begrudge each other. It also really had nothing to do with size. The rhino was substantially larger but the lion was far more definite about his boundaries. The result was ultimately resolution rather than war.
So often as humans we feel the need to caretake for each other’s feelings and in so doing over-step our own boundaries in order to make the other feel more comfortable. Ultimately this serves neither party. If a boundary needs to be laid then we need to lay it. If something needs to be said then we can’t avoid it for fear of ruffling feathers. Melody Beatti says “we cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of another person’s feelings”. Interestingly though, in stating our truth at the risk of hurting the other’s feelings we actually take care of their wellbeing at a deeper level.
Maybe it’s time we started to toughen our skin somewhat like the rhino. Not so tough that we become insensitive to one another but just thick enough that we can give and receive clear no’s without fear of offense.