I am because you are...
“Eh, that would have been fine,” I shrugged.
I’d commented that someone I follow on social media had recently had a baby they’d named “Elijah” and were calling him “Eli.”
My oldest perked his ears up as I said, “We almost did that with you.”
“What?” He asked.
“Named you Elijah but called you Eli.”
“Why didn’t you?” He exclaimed, “Elijah is an awesome name.”
“I didn’t like the ‘juh’ sound with your middle name ‘Joseph.’ The ‘juh-jo’ thing. I didn’t think it sounded as good.”
But when I shrugged and declared it would have been fine, my husband’s jaw dropped. “You had a very strong opinion about that then.”
He was right, I did.
And, while anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I still do have very strong opinions, believe it or not, the areas about which I hold those opinions have shrunk and are shrinking dramatically, at least as compared to ten to fifteen years ago.
I mused about this for a moment and then reflected, “I was so used to having to defend and to dramatically assert anything I really cared about that I didn’t have any room for flexibility. All my boundaries had to be super firm and super strong.”
I’ve healed a lot in the past ten years.
Last year, I chose the word “open” as my word for 2023. This year, the word “porous” presented itself to me in a lecture I read on Julian of Norwich and ecology. Porous was the word Dr. Claire Gilbert used to describe both Julian’s theology and our authentic selves in the world.
The alternative or contrast is a “buffered self” that “sees herself as hermetically sealed off from others, needing to create relationship as one plus one plus one, rather than a porous self who is inherently in relationship, who knows ‘I am because you are’” (p. 3).
If we choose to be disciples of nature, we see that we humans are inherently porous. Our skin absorbs and respirates through millions of literal pores. I don’t see porous as antithetical to boundaries, but rather a lens through which we must examine what we mean by boundaries. Being a porous creature doesn’t mean I’m mush that just falls everywhere. I have a skeletal system that holds my body up, connected by thousands of tiny ligaments and muscles of all sizes, working together as a biomechanical marvel that allows me to go out into the world and engage with it. I have a digestive system that takes in nutrients and water and expels waste. My lungs breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide even as the trees which surround my house breathe in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. I cannot go through any part of a day–any part of a minute, or even more than a couple of seconds–without taking in something, expelling something. And thus my body is constantly and inherently in relationship with the world around me. I cannot plastic-wrap myself away from relationship and survive for really any time at all. I would suffocate.
The same is true of emotional porousness, though less obvious. And many more of us try to survive with a firm boundary that’s mortared and sealed and water-tight. We’ve been hurt by some relationships that have gotten in before, poisoned or made sick by them even. And so now we try to make sure nothing gets in without our say so.
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I’ve discovered that in doing so, I’ve effectively trapped some things and even some relationships inside my tightly-built walls that perhaps needed to have been let go long ago. Thinking I was protecting myself, I instead created a different set of problems. There’s no such thing as a truly closed system that survives for very long. Sure, there’s that guy that grew a plant in a bottle for 60 years, and it survived. But humans and other mammals and any other animals for that matter cannot survive in a closed system. And don’t we want more than mere survival, anyway?
I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a risk-free life. I’ve accepted those risks when it comes to my outdoor adventures, albeit, very low risks overall. But when it comes to relationships, I’ve tried to sort of hunker down with the few people I’d let in and call it quits instead of being open to new friendships.
But this approach isn’t sustainable. We are inherently in relationship with people, in existence because of and with the other. We are inherently in relationship with the natural world because we are nature, and in existence because of the rest of nature. To see ourselves as separate from the world or from each other is to cause death. We see the evidence of this wherever we turn with war and genocide taking place even as I sit here in at my cozy little desk, and try to avoid too many headlines because my heart can’t handle so much. But I am connected with the victims and the perpetrators because we are all one species, one kind of creature. We see the evidence of this as new species are added to the extinction list every year with too little knowledge of and too few exclamations over their disappearance from our world.
Creation is crying out, the children being extinguished are crying out, and too many of us have raised too firm of barriers to ourselves, and we forgot that we are because they are, and none of us exist without the other.
I’ve determined this year to have more porous boundaries, to remember that to breathe means to exhale as well as inhale, and to remember that I am because you are. You and I–we are inherently in relationship with each other and every other living thing on this planet whether creature or plant or fungi in the soil. We are inseparable, and we forget that to our peril.
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“I wish I could still believe in God, but I can’t be a Christian anymore because of ______” Fill-in-the-blank with racism, misogyny, homophobia, toxic capitalism, and so on. I’ve had this conversation with different people almost word-for-word over and over. White American Christianity has so defined God that many people cannot separate God from the toxic theology they were taught.
But this isn’t the God I see in the Bible. The Bible shows us a God meeting people where they are and nudging them towards justice and total thriving for all: shalom. The Bible details arcs of justice and societal reform. If we understand how radical those arcs were in the context of the day, we can extend them forward into the future and figure out how to work for justice, total thriving, and societal reformation in our day.
I grew up in that first world view. Come along, and I’ll tell you the story of how I escaped, and I’ll show you a theology that I believe paints a more accurate picture: a faith for the common good where everyone thrives and no one is left out.
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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