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


One of our favorite restaurants is a place in Mentone, AL called The Wildflower Cafe (http://www.mentonewildflower.com/index.html). They feature fresh ingredients and a creative gourmet menu. On the evening we visited, we enjoyed the salmon Wellington and a dinner special, the “Greeked” mahi-mahi.

Although the food was good, the overall experience was marred by the brash and loud young man sitting at the table just across from and behind us, at my left. He was with a date and was obviously—and did I mention LOUDLY?—trying to impress her with his knowledge of various subjects, his achievements at work, the people he knew, blah, blah, blah. He had not learned to use his “inside voice,” and his mama and daddy had apparently not taught him courtesy and manners in a public setting. Or it they had, the lesson hadn’t stuck.

But what can we expect in this disconnected day, when people walk around or drive with their cell phones stuck to their ears or are routinely rude and discourteous, whether driving, walking, dining or simply living? Like the woman who at the polling place completely ignored the sign on the door that said “No cell phones allowed.” What happened? She kept her cell on, and when phone rang, she didn’t immediately shut it off. She had to be scolded by the poll worker before she took action!

We are so unaware of our surroundings and the people—our neighbors—who populate them. We don’t pay attention. I think it’s because we have become so thoroughly self-absorbed, intent on getting our own way, asserting our privilege. But such behavior should come as no surprise in a society where selfish and greedy corporate executives make ridiculous salaries and pull down outrageous bonuses, where government officials care not about helping the American people find jobs but rather about getting elected and keeping their own jobs, where we have had drilled into us that the pronoun “I” is more important by an order of magnitude than “we.”

But the fundamental teaching of Jesus still stands. Drawing on the ancient Hebrew tradition, he said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

What would our land be like if we were to connect with God and with each other in such a way?

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.