If “’good fences make good neighbors,’” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), what do the way our wooden fences are oriented reveal about our attitudes toward our neighbors? (Of course, Frost began the poem with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” so should we put up barriers at all?)

Anyway, I’ve noticed that when we build fences they face one of two ways. One is with the panels out toward the street or the neighbor in the next house, so that the pretty side of the fence is seen by those who pass by and by the people on either side of us. I call these “outies.” The other is with the rails and posts—the raw side—toward them, so that we enjoy the nice-looking fence. I term this orientation “innie.”

Isn’t that rather the way we tend to think about relationships with others? The nice-side-toward-the-neighbor fences might indicate that we value our neighbors’ need for beauty and a pleasant life more highly than our own. We also want to make a good impression and contribute to the well-being and aesthetics of our community.

On the other hand, the raw-side-toward the neighbor, the street, could stand for the tendency we all have to think first of what’s good and enjoyable for ourselves. We want to see beauty and enjoy the good life, while we expect our neighbors to deal with the raw edges. Who cares if they have to look at the posts and rails and concrete? We have what we need and want.

But I wonder if there isn’t a third way. Richard Rohr, the contemplative Catholic priest, talks about the danger of dualistic, childish thinking. Everything is either/or, good/bad, us/them. He suggests that the contemplative way, as classically understood, detaches from such bifurcated ideas and embraces an inclusive way of both/and (see endnote).

So the contemplative fence might be one with the panels on both sides, loving ourselves and our neighbor, loving ourselves as we love our neighbor, doing good for ourselves by loving our neighbor. We realize that it is in our interest that the neighbor live a full and good life. How much crime and disharmony arise from people struggling to have the bare necessities? And when a variety of ideas are in the mix, instead of just one or two choices, and a solution arises beyond any of them, the community benefits and is enriched.

Of course, a fence with panels on both sides is more costly. But isn’t this the reality of true discipleship? Can we render unto the Lord that which costs us nothing (cf. 2 Samuel 24:24)?

Innie? Outie? Try the third way.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Endnote: Rohr made the comments in the short film “Dualism and Identity,” at http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dualism-and-identity