A proverb dating from the 17th century says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It is most famously used in a Robert Frost poem entitled “Mending Wall”. A man questions the need to repair a wall year after year, when there is no need for a wall at all. The neighbor insists that it must be rebuilt. His reasoning is nothing more than that very proverb, which he quotes twice for emphasis.
This came to mind today when I gazed out a rear window of my home. When we bought our house, the limits of our yard were unclear. A huge area of grass was shared in common among the half dozen or so houses that bordered on it. So wide open was the space that two elderly neighbors laid out a nine-hole golf course (a very short one) where they met to play a round on a regular basis.
Today, that space is a nasty patchwork quilt of small fenced in lots. These aren’t quaint little white pickets. They exist for the sole purpose of blocking people, either from entering or even seeing (or both) their precious plots of land: chain links, tall white screening jobs, and a classic stockade beast we affectionately refer to “Fort Apache”.
I can now speak from experience when I say that good fences make good neighbors like Facebook makes good friends, i.e. they don’t. In fact, the term “good fences” could be an oxymoron.
The motivations for building fences are many. It could be ritual, as it was for Frost’s neighbor. Hoarding is another common reason – what’s mine is mine and I’m not sharing it. For some, it could be aesthetic, but I find that hard to believe given the unsightly appearance of stockades and chain links.
I would propose that fear is the number one reason, as it is for so many of our decisions these days. Fear that children might wander off or, worse, a stranger might wander in and abduct a child. Fear that someone will invade my home and steal my possessions. The fact that these fears are almost completely groundless makes no difference. Fear builds walls. That’s what it does, in neighborhoods, in the world.
Fear (or at best, greed) wins, walls win, neighbors lose, neighborhoods lose, society loses.