Back in my senior year of high school, my English teacher was a huge fan of the poet Robert Frost and had us all recite and memorize the poem “Mending Walls.” The poem is about two neighbors who share a stone wall between their properties that they meet at every spring to repair.. Many may recognize the famous line: “good fences make good neighbors.”
As I moved on from high school to experience adult life, I came to appreciate this famous quote because it speaks to me of the simple and yet beautiful need for boundaries in our lives. The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving help with setting these boundaries and reveal to us where we can grow as spouses and family members.
There are many studies on the internet that show the importance of setting healthy boundaries for yourself and for your relationships. Boundaries in our life are what walls are to a well-built home. We can think of these walls as confinement or prevention of freedom; however, it is this structure that allows us to live and thrive within. Life without healthy boundaries ultimately lets chaos flourish.
It may seem like fun at first, but, without healthy structure and limits in our lives, we can’t truly be free. For instance, I would love to stay up all night and not set a healthy bedtime. However, if I did this, my work and ability to accomplish things the next day would surely suffer. In setting these limits and structures in our lives, we can learn to thrive and not just survive.
One of the great practices of Lent is to take time to pray more. Blocking out time for prayer, instead of using it for something else, may help us to take a step back and finally see if our activities are really life-giving. This boundary/guideline helps us to see if our time is being used well, and if the activities we invest in as a couple or as a family are really beneficial. This isn’t to say that couples and families shouldn’t have fun and relax, but an ongoing waste of time will only cause things to be more difficult.
Prayer also provides us with grace and clarity. When a couple or a family slows down and takes a moment to pray together, Jesus is with them: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Unlike any other activity that we may do, prayer bonds our relationship with God and with one another.
Sacrifice is another Lenten practice that helps us to put boundaries on things. When we willfully choose to sacrifice something in life, it reveals to us our attachments. Another great benefit is that we learn a lot from the struggle of making the sacrifice — it makes us stronger. We may not always do a sacrifice perfectly, but a lot can be learned from the progress made. With progress, we build momentum and, when we learn how to sacrifice as a couple or a family, we begin to learn to thrive in a new way.
For instance, a family may decide during Lent to make the sacrifice of turning off electronic devices once a week. This may be very difficult for everyone, and may seem impossible to achieve at times. However, in the struggle, the family is giving up some of the attachment to these devices and the time may be spent instead doing an activity together. Even if the sacrifice isn’t perfect, this boundary helps eliminate distractions, and will bear fruit in the family becoming closer and more attentive to one another.
Finally, the practice of almsgiving speaks for itself during Lent. Too often, we are tempted to spend our resources on many things and this practice helps to center us, even in our treasure. There is a common saying that “our bank account reveals our family values.” Lent is a great time to see where we can provide more structure and improve as a couple and family in this area. To draw a line and make a decision to not spend money on something we are used to having and to instead use the money for some other good, helps us to grow.
So much more can be said about setting healthy boundaries in our lives. It should be noted that boundaries can be taken too far and the result is walling out people or things that could truly benefit us. There are many resources online that can help you learn more about setting better structure, guidelines and goals for your relationships and families.
Pray to God for guidance in areas of your life and family that need more structure. Use these final days of Lent to motivate you and keep up your progress. Whereas good fences make good neighbors, it can be said that healthy boundaries make for a great family life.
Tremblay is marriage and life ministries director for the Diocese of Green Bay.