Good Fences Make Good Neighbors


A quote from the poem, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, starting with the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The poem weighs in against walls. They are hard to maintain, they get in the way, and have no good purpose. But the voice making the case for walls says nothing but, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” and even then only twice in a 50-line poem.

When we think of walls, it is mostly in a negative light. Prison walls. The Berlin Wall. Walls mean unwelcome barriers. “He has built up a wall around himself, and won’t let anyone in.” In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor walls off his hapless victim, Fortunato, suffocating him. We use phrases like a “wall of water” to describe water-based disasters, and “I hit a brick wall” to talk about how we had a mental block of some sort. Liking walls implies to some that we don’t like what is on the other side of that wall. And building walls to those same people means that we must hate what/who is on the other side.

But walls are getting a bad rap. Walls help us set boundaries, and most of us need to set better boundaries. Whole books have been devoted to the benefits of setting and maintaining those boundaries. Walls, when properly placed, can resolve territorial disputes before they even start. They can keep children, dogs, and livestock either in or out.

More importantly, walls can give us more clear cut choices. Let’s start with a controversial example (as we are prone to do in these blogs).

If we have an effective physical barrier with Mexico, then we can make the choice of how many people of which type we would like to enter our country. We can be liberal and generous, perhaps running some level of risk, or allow only a relatively small fraction of those seeking admittance – perhaps missing the opportunity to welcome valuable contributors.

Without a barrier, we have no choice but to accept all comers. In fact, that is the clear decision that is made by not having a barrier. Without an effective barrier, we are locked into the one choice – accepting all comers – that drove the decision not to have a barrier in the first place. A barrier allows you to rethink your choices as the world, and our view of it, changes. And when people are admitted through that barrier, they know they are truly welcome, and not just in the U.S. in a way that some see as tainted.

Similarly, having barriers in our personal lives gives us choices that not having those barriers does not allow. For example, many of us have trouble saying “No”, whether it is an invitation to coffee when you have neither the time nor energy, or joining an active volunteer group which would further crowd a schedule that barely allows you the time to brush your teeth at night. Many of us see turning people down in the same way that we see walls; we see it as awkward, unpleasant and unfriendly. I have a dear friend who has no trouble at all saying no. At first I found that disconcerting, but I quickly came to realize the advantage to me. (Yes, to me.) I knew that when he said yes, that I could rely on that. No matter how big the ask, I knew that he was happy doing it. I never have to worry whether he reluctantly said yes and is now regretting it and wishing that he did not have to come through. The minor disappointment at the times he says no is far outweighed by the comfort that I have when he says yes.

“No” gives power to your “Yes.” If you do not have the power to say no, then your yes is powerless as well.

Will Luden, writing from my home office at 7,200 feet in Colorado Springs.

Will Luden
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