Saturday, June 12, 2010

In Search of a Bottom Line Ethic of "Good Fences"

In search of that really bottom line almost everyone could see and agree upon as an ethic of boundaries…I woke thinking of the conflicts that abound on our round spinning world.

In the quiet time, newspapers still on the ground outside the gate, computers still dark for the night, I scribbled thoughts not only of physical boundaries, heated political boundaries - the Middle East, the boundary between the United States and Mexico - but also boundaries in nature, species boundaries, genetic boundaries. I recently saw videos of experiments now common in research fields, the extraction of the genetic material of a cell or an egg of one species being replaced or combined with genetic information from another.

I thought of seeds I encounter everyday, the sesame seeds on the crust of my morning toast and the kale seeds I just planted in my garden. Seeds are astounding blueprints. Is it wise to alter the very nature of things wild? Will altered seeds, their altered plant forms alter all their neighbors? Will originals be lost?

Nation to nation neighborliness has grown so complicated, but then so can garden variety neighbor relations. If your neighbor lets tall strong thistles grow along his border, you too will have thistles and you will either have to entertain them or labor to weed and scour them out. If you poison the thistles, your poison will drift into the air and the water and the soil, yours and your neighbor’s.
At times we resort, rather than working out these dilemmas where unique boundaries and communicative cooperation are needed, to dishonoring our neighbors and spreading complaints abroad.

“Look at that neighbor, he doesn’t even clean his land of thistles,” says one man.
“Look at my neighbor, he denudes the land of all that is wild with poisons,” says another.

Of course the most important place we usually need to look is at ourselves.

An old saying is often summarized as “good fences make good neighbors…”

Exploring the origin of the phrase in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs I found the first noted reference to be from a 1640 letter written by an E. Rodgers in the “Winthrop Papers.” “…a good fence helpeth to keep peace between neighbors; but let us take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keep us from meeting.” So while the fence is seen as vehicle to help keep peace, once clarity of boundary is defined, there is an emphasis on meeting across the fence on positive terms.

In Modern Chivalry, 1815, H.H. Brackenridge is quoted: “ I was always with him (Jefferson) in his apprehension of John Bull…Good fences restrain fence breaking beasts, and …preserve good neighborhoods.”

This version emphasizes the dangers that good fences can protect us from and that the need for boundaries and clarity is very real in this world where beasts of many species do indeed roam.

Robert Frost wrote “Mending Walls” in 1914. In this famous poem, he describes how hunters have dismantled the fences and how he and his neighbor walk the boundaries of their adjoining land together in the springtime mending stonewall fences to contain their respective cows and protect their crops and gardens. Frost knows he needs fences but as he lifts and rebalances the stones he also longs for openness, earth without a boundary. Perhaps the fence does not need to be continuous: “My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines.” Not meeting the same opinion in his neighbor, as Frost watches his neighbor lift another stone in place Frost imagines him as “an old-stone savage armed.” Frost too has armed himself. He is armed with words; judging his neighbor for fencing all his land, as less sophisticated and thinking than he is. As the neighbor continues the line of the fence he repeats what Frost now calls “his Father’s” saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Our father’s sayings might be a way to reference traditions, culture; even the laws that represent what G. K. Chesterton called “ the democracy of the dead.”
"Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." Chesterton goes on to say: "Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father." Orthodoxy, Chapt4 "The Ethics of Elfland."Page 48 Doubleday Image
Frost apparently didn’t fight with his neighbor about the fence; he went home and wrote a poem about it. In his poem, he reveals an internal dilemma. He knows that he himself, a self he perhaps imagines as having little in common with the stone-age, a self unarmed and perhaps even a self free of his and other fathers’ precepts, this self still needs some fences, some boundaries. It is a dilemma.
A dilemma, by nature presents competing needs, horned alternatives, which are perhaps best met when there are two clauses in answer. Often times people breathe both clauses but join them with a “but.”

If one says, “We need to communicate but we need to maintain strong boundaries.” is it not different from saying, “We need to communicate and we need to maintain strong boundaries.”?

We do need strong fences and neighborly kindness.

Boundaries exist; they are part of a hierarchy found in the most primal realms of life. As a family therapist, my model for boundaries in relationships came to me from the biology classes of my youth and university days.

A living cell is a working model of boundaries. A cell wall is defined as a semi-permeable discerning membrane. A healthy cell wall can let what is needed in and release that which is no longer viable. Families are healthy when they flexibly both shelter and expose vulnerable members to experience. Dynamic tensions, such as the balance between rights and responsibilities are paramount in development of competence and integrity.

Discernment in a cell is a process of maintaining equilibrium. Stable laws govern the passage of molecules through the cell barrier and the concentration of solvents in the cell interior, unless damaged by trauma, physical or chemical.

Every house has a door, and every good fence a gate; every land has laws as to how people may come and go and what rights and responsibilities we bear to each other.
As it is written in Psalm 85:10: Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed [each other].
Some realities cannot be separated, and some realities should not be teased apart. Boundaries in the ideal bear these merged qualities. “…a good fence helpeth to keep peace between neighbors; but let us take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keep us from meeting.”


Sukie Curtis said...

So much to chew in this post! I have begun to practice intentionally choosing "and" over "but" nearly all the time. It makes a huge difference. Not setting things in opposition to each other (and sometimes the separation and opposition are truly in our perceiving), choosing instead to hold more than one facet of reality at the same time. Nuance, paradox, non-paralysis.


Carol............. said...

This is a very thought provoking post.......and a very good one.