Keeping the Cows out of the Corn

September 23

My daughter has a very big, pink, plush heart-shaped pillow. There have been times in my life, especially in younger years when I have felt that other people saw me as like that heart. And being the squishy heart that I was (and I say “was”,) I soaked up others’ cares like a big sponge. The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbours.” Just as my neighbour would not take kindly to my cows in his corn field, so in relationships there needs to be some clarity of what’s mine, and what is not.

We are all care-givers at some times in our lives because we all live in families and communities. There are times in our lives when care-giving is our primary vocation. And then there are those unexpected calls from someone in pain. Whether it is an on-going care-giving relationship or an unexpected demand for care, we need to know how to care for ourselves so as to sustain our energies.

Those who are trained therapists or counsellors learn how to separate themselves from those with whom they relate. This needs to be at both a physical and an emotional level.

Sometimes I have to make myself physically inaccessible to those who would reach out to me. I don’t accept Facebook friend requests from everyone. I have blocked email addresses and phone numbers. (Sometimes these are temporary blocks.) I have delayed responding to phone calls or emails. I don’t have to be the one who is there for everybody, as long as I am there for those for whom I am called. My friend Sophia used to say, “someone else is called to be that person’s messiah.”  (Of course I’m not anyone’s “messiah”, but I understood her intent.)

Emotional separation is more difficult for me than physical. Whether it’s a learned or acquired trait, care-givers seem to absorb pain from those around us. I now know that empathy does not mean that I share someone else’s suffering. Their suffering is not mine, but it may be similar to something in my lived experience. When I am most human, I recognize a shared humanity with the one who is suffering. For example, when someone loses a mother, I grieve for my mother and not for her mother. (Sometimes I also grieve for her mother, but not as her daughter, but from my own relationship with the woman.) Recognizing what is mine and what is not mine helps me to keep emotional stability.  

Peace Activist Daniel Berrigan wrote “10 commandments for the Long Haul,” which are spiritual principles and attitudes that sustained him in his social justice ministry. The first one is “Acknowledge you are a creature, not the creator.” The fourth one is: “Give yourself permission to be inadequate.” Surprise, surprise, along the way I learned that I am not “God” – that I can’t fix or take away another’s suffering. That was a freeing discovery!

In his poem Frost muses, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out?” It is true that we need some time and space, and some of us need more than others. It is also true that our fences and walls need gates, because our spirits are also nurtured as we nurture. We are on this human journey together.  

Robert Frost Poem:

Gratitude Prompt: What relationships nurture me in care-giving?