December 23, 2021.
It’s been almost two years since COVID-19 shut down travel, work, and school, and we all retreated to our homes, what we had of them, to shelter in place. I remember the almost festival-like atmosphere and novelty of the experience. We logged in, we reached out, we cried listening to Italians singing opera across courtyards in quarantine; we watched breathless as atmospheres cleared of smog and we saw metropolitan skylines for the very first time. I was about to finish winter quarter of the first year of the psychology program at Seattle University. We all got on Zoom, laughing and waving to one another, blinking back at one another’s faces in pixelated form. We joked about Brady Bunch boxes of talking heads, but I also saw a beautiful patchwork quilt. There I was at home, separated but connected to my peers and teachers. I held my three year old daughter on my lap while I listened to lecture, so grateful, despite the destruction that the pandemic wrought, to be home.
Who we are is who we are from. Who we are from is who we are with…that is, with whom we keep company. Who is your company? Who welcomes you home to who you are? That welcome may be internal as well as external. Whose are the voices that greet you when you wake? From whom come the ideas that shape your perceptions and your opinions? Do they nurture you? Do they support you? Do they prompt you to be truly you?
Sometimes who we are from is not easy company to keep, but authentic selfhood means being with and acknowledging the presence of others by whom you may not always feel welcomed. Maybe this is a parent who has never fully accepted you, or a former partner from whom you are now estranged, or a child who has rejected your attention and love. It’s difficult to embrace the fact that we are from pain and heartbreak as much as from joy. I hear a lot of talk about “boundary setting” in my work as a therapist. The implication seems to be that we can close ourselves in our own little shells with boundaries that protect us. But I wonder about such boundaries. Yes, appropriate boundaries are healthy, especially when we’re talking about physical and emotional safety. But sometimes “boundary setting” feels to me like a form of avoidance that rewards us with short-term emotional relief, rather than engaging in the hard work of building sturdy structures that will enable and enhance relationships. Thanks, Robert Frost: “good fences make good neighbors“. Is my home in the style of hostile architecture, attempting to shape and restrict the behavior of others? Or can it be a place of gather and welcome? Where is the hearth, how big is the table, and how comfortable am I opening the door?
In his famous essay “Of Hospitality“, Jacques Derrida explores the relationship between “host” and “hostage”. Paradoxically, it is when we are our most sovereign and powerful selves, able to open our homes to others, that we expose ourselves to the most vulnerability. In playing host, we become hostage to others. It is the mystery and the potential danger of the guest that makes hospitality hospitable. Otherwise, hospitality would be a lie! We would not be welcoming guests, but scrutinizing potential members of an elite club. How homey is that?
Boundaries do not separate us from others. Boundaries are the tangible, living architecture of our relationships with others. To go home does not mean to retreat into the self, but to find a place of repose and peace in the structures that support me. I did not always agree to each piece of that structure, but I can appreciate the totality of who I am as bound to the others who, for better or worse, shape my life. Who give me life. Who remind me that, like Derrida’s host, if I truly were in ultimate control, I would have no relationships at all.
So welcome yourself home to who you are. Don’t care about the dirty dishes or the mess. There is space here for you to rest. And there is true strength in your acknowledgment, in its simplicity and realness, of: “this is me.”