“‘No’ is golden. ‘No’ is the kind of power the good witch wields. It’s the way whole, healthy, emotionally evolved people manage to have relationships with jackasses while limiting the amount of jackass in their lives.”
—Cheryl Strayed, writing as advice columnist "Dear Sugar"
A few years ago, in need of a place to live, I went to see an apartment. After showing me the space, the landlord took me outside to the porch and told me that he’d welcome me as a tenant.
“I have a couple of rules,” he advised. “No dogs, that’s the first one. And the laundry room is for tenants only, not friends or guests.” I nodded my agreement.
As he spoke, a car parked at the curb and a woman got out. “That’s the girlfriend of someone who lives on the third floor,” commented the landlord. We watched as she opened the car’s back door and removed a heaping laundry basket and a small dog. The woman, the dog, and her laundry all entered the building… even though it had just been explained to me that two of them weren’t allowed. The landlord squirmed, making no move to enforce his own rules.
I get it. I do! I get both sides of this squirmy situation: it’s a hassle to go to a laundromat (and leave your sweet furbaby at home), and we all avoid conflict a little (or a lot).
I hate to be a goody-goody (actually, I’m kind of a goody-goody), but I feel disoriented when I’m in a new place or situation and can’t figure out whether the rules are real or imaginary. I don’t just mean “masks required” stores that don't enforce the mask rule. I also mean other mixed messages sent when a boundary is accompanied by its simultaneous breaking—like when I visited an out-of-town gym right before lockdown and, while working out, noticed that underneath a sign saying “NO FOOD” someone had placed a plate of cookies.
Boundaries can be uncomfortable. Upholding boundaries? More uncomfortable. On the other hand, belonging—to an apartment building, a gym, a community, a congregation—doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.
If a boundary is important enough for you to establish, then I figure you’d best prepare yourself to name it out loud when someone violates it (even when cute dogs and cookies are involved). That accountability isn’t inherently unkind. If anything, it’s an expression of care for everyone else in the picture, because a system—a people; a community—is only as healthy as the boundaries it agrees to keep.
Trickster God who teaches us to say yes to life and yes to love, teach us also how, and when, to say no: the golden "no" that preserves boundaries in the face of mistakes and nonsense, so that the interdependent whole is cared for.