The Reasonableness of “Being Reachable”

And what “availability” means for personal boundaries

Mural by Alexis Diaz

Here are two stories from my recent life, one personal and one professional:

Story 1:

A few weeks ago, a colleague IMed me just after 7:30 pm. It took me exactly 16 minutes to respond.

The next morning, she took it upon herself to sit me down and lecture me on the importance of “response time.”

16 minutes, guys. After hours.

Story 2:

My boyfriend was at a friend’s house when I got home from work. I texted to let him know I was home, didn’t hear back, and so went about my evening — and decided to bake some cookies.

About an hour later, he calls, but I miss the call — because I’m not expecting it, because I’m knuckles-deep in batter, because I’ve compartmentalized him into “at a friend’s;” I don’t fucking know! — but not only do I miss it, I miss it hard, going a whole 45 minutes without seeing it (or responding.)

A while later he walks in, and as I look over to greet him, cookie spatula in hand, the first thing he says is:

“You have to be available if I call.”

Uh. Hi?

I stared at him, neither yielding nor combative, listening as he explained that he’d been “stranded” and unable to get ahold of me — and that,

I need to be reachable if he needs to reach me!

I listened, but was slowly searching for an answer to the one question that immediately rose up in my head in response. Because I understood where he came from — that feeling of panic, of stress — but also I immediately wondered, flatly:

“But… do I?”

Must we always be reachable and immediately responsive?

I know that a lot of us have a knee jerk response to this — thoughts of our own emotional responses when someone doesn’t pick up, or leaves a text unanswered for too many hours.

But seriously, that aside.

Must we live our daily lives in constant emotional preparation?

Must we always keep our awareness piqued for interruption? Must we always have ourselves primed and at the ready, fully mentally available, in the event someone needs to reach us?

The short answer: yes. (duh.) Or: maybe.
But the long answer: where do we draw the line?

With work: even if we had a big launch going out the door, or a true fire, I argue that 16 minutes is well within reason — especially after hours. There are a million things in normal, human being life that take fifteen minutes, a great many of them relegated to the “after work hours” in which I undeniable was.

I could’ve been showering. Talking to my mom. Trying to not talk to some chatty neighbor. Having dinner with my grandma. Checking out at the grocery store. Doing an improv rehearsal. Maybe playing a tennis match — surely that takes more than 15 minutes?? Or maybe fucking. Any example of normal, everyday human shit.

And in personal relationships: I guess, same question:

Are we not allowed to be fully present in our lives, moment to moment?

Must we always have one foot holding the door open, ear listening for the whimper of some waking baby or screaming child who never grows up, because it’s literally anyone in our life?

Now, to be clear: I have felt that panic. I know. It sucks.

And I know it’s scary, when you’re there and panicked or upset or whatever the fuck. But there’s a whole world out there, besides your moment.

Had my partner come in with a different opening message, it would’ve gone a lot differently. Had he walked in with, “omg, hi — I was stranded!!,” it would’ve flung open a door for me to walk through: oh no! that’s awful! what happened! omg, I’m so sorry I didn’t have my phone, etc. But he didn’t. He opened with what I had done, and in doing so put as at odds on this external issue.

When we do this, we lose focus; we lose footing.

We convolute the real problem — what happened — with the fact that someone couldn’t save us from it. We mis-assign the way we feel to the person who didn’t, and not the problem. And that’s not real.

See it from the universe’s — and, more importantly, other person’s — eyes, not hypotheticals or how we feel. To the universe, they weren’t available.

To the universe, it does not revolve around you.

And to be fair, I’ve always been at the other end of the spectrum

When I rode my motorcycle across the country in a day in the middle of winter, it was only because I realized I could die on this trip (and my mom would be confused to hear I was on a bike in the middle of Indiana) that I let her know what I was doing — like, the day before, and casually. Otherwise, as most everyone in my life could attest — I was probably more apt to just set off on my own and send a postcard down the road. (Maybe.)

I’ve taken vacations without telling partners — or colleagues. I’ve moved cities without telling best friends. It’s not anything deliberate — on the contrary, I just don’t realize people will care.

“It’s not rude… it’s just… inconsiderate.” One boyfriend’s mom said, in a way that was so matter-of-fact it was without judgement. I appreciated her brevity in the assessment. I’ve gone too long hearing too much emotion hanging, tangled and wadded, off the end of statements like that.

And maybe I’m wrong

Maybe I’m wrong.

I’d be the first to admit I have this tendency, but I think everyone in my life would readily agree it’s a thing I do (and most of them would readily describe it as a “problem.” Maybe it is.)

But there has to be a happy medium. Somewhere.

There’s a personal and emotional boundaries discussion here.

If everyone could have anyone else’s attention at any moment, just imagine what that would mean. Even if only our most prioritized people had this privilege, just imagine.

I would never get any deep writing done with the attentive commitment to being pulled away at any moment breathing down my back. And not just when I’m “at paper” or “typing,” but in general — a lot of writing happens away from notebook; away from screen. I need mental space. And yeah, okay, I already gave you a little bit of compromise up there — I admitted I was in the wrong — but I’m also left here wondering: I can’t be that wrong, can I?

I think we’re entitled to headspace. Not all the time — certainly there are standards, especially at work. But it’s also not fair to expect anybody — even the most important people in our lives — to be immediately responsive within 15 minutes at any time.

Emotions aside.

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Let’s be reachable.