Boundaries, Grief & September 11th

Originally published at A Deeper Story on September 11, 2012

Used with permission from
Used with permission from

The planes hit the towers that morning – fly into them, dead on – and then disappear in a cloud of sulfur and smoke. The guy with the camera is shaking, saying holy shit over and over again, holy shit, and the electric shock of such reckless evil is enough to make the entire country sit down, head in hands.

But in the third floor classroom at my Midwestern Christian college, we are unaware that anything has happened.

All we know is the early morning sun, the first-week-of-school briskness, the fresh academic planners on our desks. The professor, rosy-cheeked and chirpy, prays for the day and then launches into a list of insultingly simple questions about our Freshman Seminar required reading, Boundaries.

Boundaries, that quintessential Christian book on emotional health, promises to teach readers “when to say yes, when to say no, and how to take control of your life.” In my memory, the cover bares the image of a white picket fence with a heart-shaped hole in its gate, but Amazon shows me a low rock wall instead. The wall is downright quaint. It separates green grass from more green grass from beautiful blue sky. Boundaries.

What I am learning at 8:30 in the morning on September 11, 2001 is that the happy freedom of the Christian life can be mine if only I build a low, sturdy wall around the beating center of my heart.

At mandatory 10:30 chapel, there are murmurings, but nothing I can quite piece together into story. And then, finally, they turn on the news. They put it on the giant screen in front, and in place of the usual worship song lyrics and announcements, there is smoke and fire and all manner of chaos.

“Boundaries help keep the good in and the bad out,” write Cloud and Townsend on page 31 of Boundaries. On the screen, planes crash. The buildings dissolve and then reassemble themselves so we can feel the impact of the crash again and again.

“Boundaries help us distinguish our property so that we can take care of it,” the book continues. And it occurs to me that evil doesn’t give one shit about your pretty little brick walls, your property. Sometimes evil just crashes into you, and your patch of perfectly-maintained interior landscape is scorched in the resulting brushfire of grief.


It has been eleven years now, and I am thinking about all that I have built around myself.

During my year of therapy, I learned a lot about saying no, a lot about self-care and about creating a kind of sustainability for my own soul.

But as I walk to the edge of my gated heart to hang a white ribbon in remembrance of that first September 11th, I wonder about these walls I have built. Are they really about health, or are they about comfort? In my effort to be well, have I insulated myself from the sharp grief of the world?

So much of the way that I interact with others in their grief is ritualistic. I bow my head to say a quick prayer. I make a meal, drop it off. I write a check or stuff full a bag of used clothes. I put a dollar into a metal can for disabled Veterans, stick the blue flower they give me into my button hole, and promptly forget all about it.

I watch the footage of that day in September, cry a little, flip to the next channel, forget all over again.

In becoming my own heart’s gatekeeper, choosing what is “good” and what is “bad,” what to let in and what to keep out, I think I might have missed the point.

It is, after all, the hard things that make us softer. More full of grace. More like our Jesus. The things that I am so determined to keep out – the pain and grief and mess of other people’s lives – those are the things that Christ let all the way in.

And maybe the best way to honor this day, September 11th, eleven years later, is to step out from behind our walled-in hearts. Maybe we can honor the grief and pain of the past by being brave enough to enter someone’s grief in the present.

Grief, after all, is grief, no matter the magnitude or the news coverage or the shock value. Pain is pain. The world is cruel and hard and ambivalent towards our efforts to protect ourselves, and maybe the bravest thing we can do is walk into someone else’s suffering heart and just stay.

You’ll, of course, feel useless…like there’s nothing you can do, so why should you be there at all? Don’t worry: that means you’re in the right place. Sit down. Don’t say anything. Set out the dinner, but don’t force her to eat; pack away the leftovers with care. Stay until the house is quiet and the lights have dimmed; stay through your discomfort and your pain and your awkwardness. Leave only when it’s time to go.

This is how we change a culture steeped grief: by climbing up over the low, brick walls of our own boundaries and into each other’s pain. We change culture by saying yes when it would be easier, healthier, more comfortable to say no. 

We hoist our lanterns and walk humbly. We move one step at a time across the surface of a fire-scorched world, hands out, heart beating loud and unprotected in our chests.

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