Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

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Robert Frost is the poet who touted this adage. At least that is where I first encountered it. For those of us who are animal owners—whether they are companions or working animals—fences are critical. I certainly see this in the canine world.

My 65-pound Annie would probably tear apart the little Chihuahua next door if the fences separating their verbal altercations were to ever be removed. I have seen evidence of the inevitability of their words moving into physical fighting when they have had the rare occasion to be outside of the fenced areas.

But, on the other hand, what I have observed is that when the fence is removed, neither of the animals is as brave as they seemed behind their enclosures. So there is a lesson in this as well.

Most of us talk pretty bravely when we are behind our closed doors. We comment on world affairs, people groups, local and global events unchecked. How fast the bravado evaporates when we come face to face with “the other.”

There is a Biblical admonition for us to take our “beefs” personally—one on one—to a person with whom we have a conflict. This, of course, requires that we bring the conflict—perceived or real—out of the shadows of innuendo, into the light of reality. For the most part we don’t do this, at least not until we have garnered sufficient public opinion on our side.

To make this happen, we build a case. Just like a lawyer, we prepare our defense, or offense. In doing so, we narrow the “facts” down to what we are trying to prove. This most often requires ignoring any point that would detract from our case. The points we leave out, thinking they will damage our cases, might actually be those real factors that could prove our position, but at least would present a more balanced picture. We rely on selective memory.

Have you noticed in watching a court case—real or on the screen—by the time they hit the courtroom, both parties have built cases that are so skewed their own direction, that a jury has a difficult task sorting out the truth. We often excuse the legal profession from creating such a fiasco, but we must not allow it in our own personal interactions.

We must go to the offending person—or the person we have offended—and start by owning our wrongdoing. That act alone softens “opponents,” as they realize they are not being asked to take all the responsibility for the situation. The hard part is what to do if the other party is not willing to take any responsibility. If we go into this conversation with a contrite heart, without expectations, we can walk away in peace knowing that we are absolved.

If it is a situation, however, that goes beyond just the two people, or concerns an issue that must be fully resolved, then Biblically we are to go to a person who has spiritual authority over us both and enjoin their help in resolving the issue. Once we take that step, we are placing the situation and the other person in the capable hands of a person who cares for each of us and will look out for both our interests.

But, more importantly, we have stepped out from behind our fences and stopped imagining the motive of the other person. Instead we can let them speak for themselves. I have found that my imaginings of what’s in others’ minds is usually pretty far off base.

An example with which we can all identify is road rage, sometimes being the perpetrator, other times the victim. I have caused other drivers to get disgusted with my driving to the extent that they have offered me a digit expressing their fury.

Invariably when I have talked to people who have experienced road rage, they relay a situation where something out of their control caused a slip in their driving. Yes, they probably need a honk to make them aware, but going beyond this to judging their behavior is unacceptable. “Yet but by the grace of God go I,” often comes to mind. Just about the time I try to be angry at another, I commit the same offense myself.

There is value in having boundaries, especially when it comes to how we interact with others. Barriers, however, are temporal. It’s the same earth we all inhabit. There is always the day that walls fall—or are torn—down. Face-to-face encounters are inevitable. In the meantime, fences probably do make good neighbors, but only if we allow our neighbor the same benefit of the doubt we hope to receive. I don’t want to be ashamed of how I have treated someone from the safety of my little piece of the world.

– Shari


This piece was originally penned circa 2015, and was finished Jan. 24, 2017


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