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“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” Misses the Point

"Good fences make good neighbors" is a quote often misused. This line is frequently used to justify building a fence and keeping neighbors at arm's length. But that was not the author’s recommendation. In Robert Frost’s 1914 poem, “Mending Wall,” he describes two neighbors working together to repair a fallen stone fence separating their properties. One neighbor is keen to rebuild and repair the gap in the wall; the other fails to see why the wall is needed in the first place. In the poem Frost writes: “There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” The neighbor’s repeated response is "Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost intends the statement to be an indictment against our culture’s collective failure to be hospitable and neighborly, where we only share a commitment to not sharing anything. Frost’s poem is a metaphor for the walls we build that keep people out and keep people apart. Walls that keep us from being hospitable. Social media has exacerbated the problem, but it certainly isn’t the root cause. The real problem is with us and our failure to be good neighbors. Instead of developing relationships, we build fences so we never have to see our neighbors. Then we build a wall around our time and activities, and our hearts. We build a fortress of solitude! (But since we are not Superman, this will fail because we need social connections). Granted, cattle need fences to stay in their fields and dogs often need fences to stay in their yards. Fences can be a necessity in agriculture. But fences do not necessarily help create healthy neighbor relationships. We are now learning that positive and healthy neighbor relationships lead to strong neighborhoods. And strong neighborhoods foster diverse relationships, too. They connect residents with opportunities, take advantage of neighbors’ giftedness, and support children's growth. If we can strengthen America's neighborhoods, we can improve people's well-being and their access to the "American dream." This week, why not remove the metaphoric fence from around your heart and home? Let me encourage you: invite someone over this weekend. Prepare a big meal. Use good dishes. Wear something nicer than a T-shirt. Go the extra mile! As you gather, do so with a deep desire to share your lives with others. You’ll be amazed at what can happen if you let people in—not only into your homes, but into your hearts as well.

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