The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
We Change Each Other
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We Change Each Other

People, Boundaries, and Formation.

Over the past few years, I have found myself taking significant amounts of time and effort to understand the idea of boundaries. I am not a professional psychologist, psychotherapist, or neuroscientist. However, I have led and been a part of several communities of practice, lived a life in a family that effectively has no boundaries (and thrived), and experienced numerous old world style apprenticeships. This is what I have learned from each of those experiences…

Communities of Practice

Communities of practice are groups of people who, in proximate location, have committed to work together towards a particular goal. We find communities of practice often in the arts, in local chapters of larger organizations, and in families. In the arts, groups of artists of the same genre may form a community of practice to become better skilled in their particular craft – sharing learning, technique, and sometimes even provision. Local chapters of larger organizations bring people together to work out the expression of the larger organization’s mission, vision, and goals on the local level – where it may more directly affect the lives of people. Families, in their best cases, are groups of individuals all practicing what it means to love one another in the most intimate of circumstances.

Communities of practice function on the premise that there is great benefit in the relational aspect of learning. Members learn from each other while pursuing common goals. Everyone’s imaginations, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses are focused on the benefit of the group in the pursuit of the goal. Deeper still, there is an acknowledgement that members will be formed by the dynamic of the group. Each member affects and is affected by every other member.

A Family Without Boundaries

My family is unusual in that it operates effectively without boundaries. This is a high-risk model as the potential exposure to hurt is high. Everyone is in everyone else’s business, after all. But so is the exposure to love. Without boundaries we live a shared life in which each member is continually known, we can’t hide from one another, and each member prefers the other. If someone seeks for themselves, attempts to hide, or refuses to be known, the repercussions are immediately evident – the fissure in the relational dynamic is clearly felt. Trust and love are required for this to work. High levels of communication are necessary to quickly clear any issues – we aren’t perfect after all.

My family operates on the premise that being known and preferring one another is of greater benefit to each member of the family than hiding or seeking for oneself. We have the right, if not the obligation, to speak into one another’s lives for their good. Why? Because we love each other – willing the good of the other – deeply and profoundly. Even the fissures that naturally can come about through misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and missteps, are approached differently because we are so known. We know the crossing of one another’s will is unintentional. The high level of exposure provides a unique experience of sight – seeing oneself and others; a unique experience of confidence – the experience of being truly loved changes one’s disposition; and a unique experience of connection – honoring the profound connection found in familial relationships by infusing them with love.

This is not to say that we don’t hurt each other, have disagreements, or can’t get any alone time. But the level of exposure and experience of interdependence is fundamentally different.

Apprenticeships

There isn’t a book that you can pick up, read, and simply by reading, become a tap dancer. Not only is the dance not a documented form, tap dance considers the personality of the dancer as integral to the expression of the dance. Particularly in its solo and improvised contexts, the personality of the individual is as important as the vocabulary, physical mechanics, and social music shared by all tap dancers. My apprenticeships – with Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, Henry LeTang, Jimmy Slyde, and others – honored a simple understanding: in an apprenticeship, the apprentice acquires the skill and character of the teacher.

If my teachers were embittered, I came out of time with them with a little chip on my shoulder. If they were generous, my willingness to give grew. If they held themselves to a high standard, I took that on. Their character came through their dancing, and in the interactions we had. Old world style apprenticeships honor this kind of effect by considering the relationship between teacher and student to be an intimate one. Apprentices and their mentors often live close to each other, spend lots of time together – sharing rhythms of life beyond the practice – and are of the mutual understanding that the apprentice will be shaped in the likeness of their teacher’s character.

Boundaries

Communities of practice, families, and apprenticeships are amazing places for expressions of love, trust, kindness, patience, and hope. However, and most unfortunately, there are many examples of these communal forms being far less than that. Many have experienced the worst of life in their families, from their teachers, or in their communities of practice. In these cases, boundaries are a wonderful idea when the pathologies of human relationship rear their head.

Do we have someone in our lives who takes to manipulation through language? Stop talking with them. Do we have someone in our lives who takes to unhealthy behaviors? We can set clear boundaries for our own health and safety. These basic examples are great ways to attempt to prevent the negative affect that someone else may have on us.

In a world in which the momentum behind relational dynamics may be self-centered, individualistic, and transactional, boundaries may be a necessary tool. But what of a vision of a different kind of life?

Honoring our Communal Nature

What of a life that leaned into the profound connection we have with one another? What of a life that honored the amount of effect we inherently have on one another? How would the work of our own lives (the thing we each can be responsible for) change? Imagine for a moment a shared life in which every elder of a community could be a trusted mentor to any younger member of that community. Imagine for a moment, families honoring the profound connection that exists between parents and children by leaning into the intimacy of knowing and being known with love. Imagine for a moment, communities of practice that sharpened members’ ability to be with one another, live with one another, even thrive with one another, all for the sake of one another.

Can you begin to envision a shared life that is intergenerational, focused, intimate, and considerate of the realities of life? Such a vision stems from the reality that we are not alone. We all live in a context of relationship. By degrees, we find ourselves in relationships that are on the spectrum between shallow and intimate. But to what end? Is our connection with others simply the method by which we get what we want? Or is there something deeper? Could it be that the reason we are connected is integral to the kind of people we are to become? I think so.

A Vision of Walls and Gates

Boundaries are necessary when relational pathology exists. The boundaries protect against possible hurt. In turn, relationships without explicit boundaries can mean that one’s sense of self disappears into the communal – also not necessarily the best form. What if there was a middle way? This way would honor the individual nature of every person while also honoring the interconnected, even interdependent, nature of relationships.

Imagine each person as a walled city. The city holds all the parts of the individual person – their thoughts and feelings, wants and desires, and knowledge, for example – and is protected by a wall. Here, the wall has gates. The gates may either be open (in times of peace and flourishing perhaps), or closed (in times of war or threat, perhaps). What if there was a community – a group of proximate walled cities in our analogy – that could operate openly between each other. The gates of their walls would always be open. Members of this community would experience the freedom of being open, of walking in the lives of each other, of being responsible for their effect on each other, of learning how to be with one another well. Maybe, in the most intimate cases, the cities would grow so close together that they would join together. The walls between each city would break down, replaced by a single wall surrounding the newly made city.

From where I live now, this seems like a far-fetched idea. Indeed, I know of many groups of people who have tried and are trying to do this – with great intention and varying degrees of success one might say. Whether just a dream or more of a reality, I think it a worthy pursuit. That each of us, by honoring the inherent impact we have on each other, may begin to work towards having a natural affect that builds the kind of relational dynamic that may point towards a world of cities with open gates.

We are going to affect each other anyway – may it be for the good of each other, and the generations to come.


Check out, Asking the Questions for more pointed questions about these ideas, or leave a comment with what comes up for you.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.