Before I shared about the guilt trap a few weeks back, I sent what I had written to the members of the Bonhoeffer House. My dear friend Evey shared her view on it, and how she had learned to break this cycle. She focused on ways that we are confused about what a “kind and generous person” really is, and I wanted y’all to hear, in her own voice, what this was like for her.
Evey McKellar, ladies and gentlemen:
Simply naming it “guilt” doesn’t dissect it enough.
Sometimes it can be false guilt or shame that we don’t need to carry.
Sometimes the guilt is a wise teacher helping us stretch ourselves.
In the case of the stories we tell ourselves, we can tell ourselves we are kind and generous people, and then have a story attached to what that means. In your case, and in mine, we often determine if we are being kind and generous on the grounds of whether someone else is happy. You and I have learned to understand that this can more often than not be codependent rather than healthy, and I no longer want to define “kind and generous” by the whimsical happiness of others. I want to pursue health and live into virtues that I know are more trustworthy and more deeply rooted.
Furthermore, the programming of “codependency” has infected theology and practice of ministry. I can hear the narrative: “I’m not being a good minister unless I’m spent and weary and small and resent myself.” I don’t think this is who Jesus asks us to be, flogging ourselves for the sake of being sacrificed for others. It leaves us miserable, it abuses our God-created selves, and it certainly dis-empowers the person asking for connection with us who is devouring us, perhaps by no intention of their own.
But we humans will often push until a boundary is found, instead of protecting it as we pursue. We are often looking for someone else to inform us on what the boundaries are. “How far can I go?” is a normal question, and not necessarily a malicious one. A child seeks to learn this from parents. It doesn’t mean someone is being cruel or conniving. Rather, thirst will naturally seek to be quenched. And if the well doesn’t run dry, why would we look anywhere else?
We can dis-empower people from learning their own inner well resources… or from learning to drink from many sources, so as to not dry any one source.
Much of what we discerned together as a community was not only learning that we each had different boundaries. It was also a collective discernment towards health:
What boundaries were actually healthy?
For an individual?
As well as for a community learning to give and take?
Remember that time that someone came in who used foul language, offensive jokes and offensive speech? When Kevin protected the community and called him on it, the man angrily pushed back about his freedoms. I replied that in community, part of the work of learning to live together was recognizing that we would land in different spots (some more offended by his language than others), but that we compromised for the sake of finding a space where ALL felt safe, loved, and whole.
It takes constant negotiation. It will continue to evolve. We will “find it” in one circumstance and then keep needing to “find it” in the next. But it’s meant to be improvisation, because to “find it” and be done would mean we’d stop showing up to learn about each other, and ourselves. We’d stop doing the work.
So when we encounter guilt, it’s important to sit with the question:
Does this guilt speak a narrative that is moving towards health?
Or is this a narrative that needs to be released, because it doesn’t move towards values like health, mutuality, and sustainability?
Do we give this person money?
Or not, because it would drain the whole communal fund?
Do we let these folks sleep on our porch?
Where do our personal discomforts and safety and need for ‘not being on’ come in and
where do we need to reclaim some space?
It would be easier if it was either/or. But it’s nuanced, complex, and there are often shades to the various questions that are brought up.
We co-create new models each time, and each change in the system will have ripple effects that will need to be addressed and may cause some re-adjustment. Some days will have more capacity than others.
It’s the nuance of that guilt
that it isn’t always the wise guilt that invites us to grow,
but sometimes that growth means reminding ourselves that our boundary is okay,
and that for our health and the health of the asker,
we need to strengthen our ‘no’ so they can learn more of their wholeness
and we can learn more of ours.
– Evey McKellar
Thank you for sharing your wisdom.