Love your neighbor. Care for one another. Be of service. Has that guidance ever made your heart sink?
Good news: this doesn’t mean you’re selfish or bad. It means the healthiest, most-stream-like part of you has been protecting you from some false idea of caring that was pushed onto you by some part of culture.
Like the North Fork of the Tongue River here in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and like all rivers, there is no way you will not care, i.e., carry parts of the world you’ve encountered. If a river is moving at all, it will pick up, carry, shape, and set down bits of its environment. How much it can carry is what hydrologists call the river’s carrying capacity. And if you’re alive, you have a similar dynamics—I call this your caring capacity.
A river’s processing of sediment in this way is the river’s work (literally, in the physics sense of the word). It’s what the river does with its power (also a technical term). And the result of this work is that the river builds itself out of the sediment it encounters.
Specifically, the river builds itself edges and a foundation—what we call stream banks and a stream bed. When hydrologists go out to study a stream, the first thing we do is measure these key features by identifying the stream’s bankfull boundaries. Yes, a river has boundaries. You can see in this above photo how beautiful those healthy boundaries are. The stream veritably shines because of them.Without them, it would be an invisible sheet of water barely slogging anywhere.
The health of the river, its floodplain, and entire ecosystems depends on the stream boundaries staying intact. The North Fork of the Tongue will move back and forth across this valley—it’s not fixed in place. But as any stable stream moves, it maintains its bankfull dimensions and the integrity of its bed and banks.
If those start to erode…
…the river loses its ability to carry its load, dumps sediment in the wrong places, and smothers insects and fish. The stream usually gets over-wide and shallow meaning the water heats up and loses its ability to hold oxygen, hide fish from predators, and perform its many other wildlife-related functions. Worst of all these sediment wedges create exponentially more erosion of the river itself. It will start to cut down into its own foundation, forcing itself farther and farther down away from its floodplain. Then it can’t nourish that habitat. Nor can it disperse its own energy in a flood, so it cuts more into itself. You end up with a gully instead of a river.
It’s easy to see why we engineers used to try to ignore the sediment-carrying role of a river when they were re-channeling streams—building dams, constructing concrete channels, and straightening rivers. Sediment is messy. And if it’s handled badly, it is the undoing of a river’s own self.
The same is true of you.
If you try to care about something or someone without taking care of your boundaries, you will erode your self. And then, well re-read the indented paragraph above, and substitute yourself for the river. Does it sound familiar? Have you ever loved someone or something and then… lost your own self?
Culture often makes people think that’s what love is: “selfless.” This has especially been a model for women. (But there are men who received this conditioning also.) You see obituaries using the word “selfless” as praise.
If it truly was good for the rest of the world, I still wouldn’t advocate sacrificing your one precious life. You deserve to be a fully healthy stream for your own sake.
But also: it isn’t even good for others. You won’t be able to care for them well with this model. And you’re bound to make them unhealthy if you’re so determined to add value to their life that they don’t have to do the things for themselves that they need to do to develop their own selves.
If your model of caring has included sacrificing your own projects, values, plans, ideals, values, fun, work, rest, or health, then of course the admonishment to love one another feels icky. You feel like a failure because you don’t WANT to love that scary guy down the street, your ex, the leader of the political party you don’t like, or even one more regular nice person… but that’s a good decision if you think you’d then be responsible for adding value to their life in a way that detracts from yours.
You’re not required to do that.
You’re required only to care:
Value them. Know they are worthy. Wish them the highest good. (And keep in mind that you don’t know what that is for someone else, ever. Phew.) See what is beautiful about them.
Don’t do anything that’s not okay with and for you.
Love WITH boundaries is the only way a river works naturally and healthily. And look at all the beauty, excitement, peace, nourishment, and ALIVENESS it creates. You too.