The Wisdom of Fences


Twelve years ago, I wrote and published a book of my own called Simon Says: Views from a Higher Perspective, a set of essays “dictated” by my Siamese cat, Simon. Through the years, readers have communicated with me about particular ones that resonated with them, sometimes in ways that I did not—and could not—have predicted. I recently updated the eBook version, adding a couple of new essays left out of the original, and had occasion to re-read what Simon had said. To my surprise, even I came away from some of them with different or broader ideas from those that stimulated my writing them in the first place.

This one, On Fences, which was originally focused on the importance of limit-setting for parents, set me thinking about the ideal purpose and need for “laws,” both in the secular space of democracy and the sacred space of spiritual and emotional health. “Murphy” in the story is Simon’s “brother,” a domestic shorthair. “M” is me.

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When we moved from our old neighborhood to a new house, M had a fence installed in the back yard before she would let Murphy and me outside. Whereas our old house had been way back in the subdivision, our new one was next to a very busy street.

Feeling that his freedom was being restricted, Murphy was quite upset when he discovered the fence. No matter how much he protested, however, M wouldn’t budge.

Murphy was still a young tom, with limited knowledge of the dangers of a busy street, and he just didn’t understand. He looked for holes in the fence and tried more than once to jump over it. Fortunately, M had paid for solid workmanship.

After months of frustration, Murphy learned that the limit to his exploration wasn’t going away, so he accepted the limitation and made the best of it. He played while I watched from the patio chair. Life was good.

Then one day M forgot that the yard maintenance crew was coming and left Murphy outside when she went to work. When the crew left, they accidentally left the gate open, and M saw it as she pulled her car into the driveway.

I knew she was upset because she left her purse in the car and the door open, and walked through the front yard, calling Murphy’s name. She was frightened that Murphy had gone into the street and been injured in some way.

But he hadn’t. As she rounded the house on the gate side, she saw him sitting just inside the fence. She cried a little when she picked him up and hugged him to her chest. I’m not sure why.

Later, I asked Murphy why he hadn’t gone out when he had the chance. Pensive, he told me that he HAD gone through the gate into the front yard, and had seen the rapidly moving vehicles.

“They were pretty scary,” he said, “and after I thought about it, I knew why M put up the fence. She wasn’t just keeping us in…she was keeping us safe.”

M didn’t know it, but at that moment, Murphy no longer needed the actual fence. He had built his own “fence” inside, one which I knew would keep him safe even when M and I are gone.

I thought about the whole progression of events, from the building of the fence to Murphy’s growing up, and I came to a conclusion that I know is true.

A wise parent knows when to build fences and when to open the gate.

 

It isn’t just the wise parent who knows when to build fences and when to open the gate. It’s the wise person in any position granted authority to govern others, especially those in political office who have been elected to represent the interests of each and every citizen within their jurisdiction, irrespective of whether those citizens voted for them or not. It’s the wise person appointed to the highest court of the land. It’s the wise person who runs a company, too.

But I still maintain that the person whose wisdom is more important than all is the parent, because the wisdom of all the others depends on it.

If I had to choose the most important responsibility of parents it would be to devise fences—“laws,” “rules of behavior” that exist in the home—that are broad enough to allow freedom for the emerging selves inside to develop to their maximum potentials yet provide realistic guidelines for living in a civil society where the fence not only protects that tender self, but the tender selves on the other side of the fence.

In psychological parlance, fences are called boundaries, synonymous with property lines detailed in titles. In political parlance, fences are called laws. In religious parlance, they’re doctrines. But no matter what, the same ideals apply in all cases. The purpose of fences is, as Murphy learned in the story, dual. In addition to protecting the authority of the person inside the fence over what happens inside the fence from assault from the other side, it protects those outside the fence from the same intrusion, intentional or otherwise, from us. Where one fence ends, another begins—and that’s true no matter which side of a fence one is on.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a psychologist almost as long as I’ve been a Christian, but I see virtually everything that Jesus said or did as relating to one side or the other of the fence. If Jesus talked about anything, he talked about pumping up and respecting the soul-self inside the fence and the boundary that restricted behavior in relation to those on the other side.

The kingdom of heaven to me is simple in concept, but obviously excruciatingly difficult in practice. It is a “kingdom” in which every self inside his or her fence is fully and constantly aware of God’s unconditional, unchanging love for him or her irrespective of the noise or behavior exhibited by events and people outside the fence. It is a “kingdom” in which that loved self also recognizes and respects the boundary that exists between him- or herself and the other selves who are unconditionally, and unchangingly loved by God in equal measure. It is a “kingdom” where the application of boundaries is so well-ingrained that all energies are devoted to the raising up of the citizenry as a whole. If you can expect your fences to go unmolested without constant patrol, you can join together with others and create much more wonderful things.

Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets, and then quoted two simple commandments. Love God (which by the commutative property of addition means to love Love) and love your neighbor as yourself. I can’t think of a more complete set of laws, simply because abiding by those two alone relieves any worry of breaking the rest, whether we’re talking about the “big ten” or the 600+ rules made up by the ancient Hebrews. The most tangible manifestation of love is the respecting of boundaries, especially when the thoughts and beliefs of the person on the other side of the fence vary significantly from yours. If you love your neighbor, defined as anyone else whose yard exists outside yours, you won’t kill him, you won’t covet his wife or her husband or her lawnmower or her children. You’ll honor your father and mother, who ideally are two more separate people whose authority, once their children are adults, recedes to include only the area inside their own fences, not by deferring forever to their will, but by becoming the most fully creative human you can.

Unfortunately, where the fences actually “should” be varies according to where one is standing. And also unfortunately, the “belief” of a majority has nothing to do with the reality of where a fence should be or the amount of force that one should or can exert on the fence from either side. Jesus knew that, I think, else when asked by the disciples if he would teach them to pray, the part about forgiving trespasses comes pretty early. And what exactly is a trespass? It’s crossing a property line uninvited.

I am convinced that if we could get this one concept down, the kingdom of heaven would materialize right in front of us. But making more laws in an attempt to control someone else’s behavior just because you think it a bad idea or that you know where the line should be better than the person whose fence it is in the first place—especially if his fence doesn’t back up to yours—isn’t going to bring it about. Bringing the kingdom of heaven about relates more to what Simon said about Murphy, that he no longer needed the fence because he had his own fence inside. It is learning what it means to love oneself and each other by learning what it means to self-govern and asking forgiveness when we overstep our boundaries.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others who trespass against us.

Vally

P.S. If you’re interested at all in reading other things Simon said and you have a Kindle or Kindle app, click here: Simon Says: Views from a Higher Perspective.

I have a few copies of the printed hardcover book, too. If you’d like an autographed copy, click here to email me.

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