Some Fences Aren’t a Good Idea

A friend of mine, the Reverend Lori Lowe, caught me red-handed yesterday. As I told her in a Facebook message, I was guilty as charged of something I had railed about with respect to another Robert Frost poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” back in December. What I said then was that Robert Frost was rolling over in his grave because the most regularly quoted line from that poem is misquoted, and almost directly in opposition to what Frost was actually saying. (Scroll back through the blogs and read it if you’re interested.) The line I misconstrued from Frost yesterday was the title of the blog—”Good fences make good neighbors.” You might want to read it, too. In any case, after Lori’s rightful scolding, I remembered something I wrote six years ago about that poem, “Mending Wall,” and went looking for it. After I read it, I decided to reproduce it here. You will notice, I think, that the word “boundaries” appears in it. And though six years have passed since I wrote this essay, I changed only one word—once again, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


While attending a conference in Phoenix a couple of years ago, I sat in the hotel cafe killing time with other participants when another suicide bombing in Israel was reported on the news. The conversation shifted to the Middle East, and September 11, and one of us related a discussion she’d recently had with a Jewish friend in D.C. Trying to make sense of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the context of the fact that we, the US, had, with England, facilitated the reestablishment of the state of Israel in the midst of people with whom the Israelis had fought for thousands of years, the friend had asked, “What were we thinking?”

Most of us laughed, but the thought resonated with all of us. It still does, at least with me.

We had another “conflict” here in the United States 150 years ago. Some say it ended in 1865, yet everybody knows that the remnants of that struggle live on, too.

Imagine that in response to the call for reparation from the African-Americans among us that we cordoned off Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, made everyone currently living there move to surrounding states, and then offered all of the living slave descendants the opportunity to occupy this new confederation. What would happen? Want to hazard a guess?

The playing field must be level and concessions given balanced in order for peace of any kind to have a chance in the Middle East or here. But leveling the field must be done with sufficient care to ensure that achieving the balance doesn’t take away the same rights and privileges from one group that are given to another in order to achieve the balance. There must be inclusionary compromise — a balance, not in power alone, but in the weight given to the value of all involved parties – and consensus between reasonable members of the groups about where their shared boundaries will be built.


Robert Frost, in his poem, “Mending Wall,” said,


“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in and walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense…”


To this I would modestly add,


And if a wall offends I’d do my best

To understand the anger at its source

And take great care, if I should then proceed

To build the wall,

To not obstruct the view.


I can only ask…What, pray tell, are we thinking?


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