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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Good Neighbors

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” introduced the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors”. It’s a tricky bit of wording that suggests two possible and quite different meanings. As any farmer would tell you, maintaining one’s fence keeps unwanted livestock from wandering onto and doing damage to someone else’s property. But good fences are barriers as well, suggesting that keeping neighbors out is the ulterior motive; neighbors being good as long as they don’t get too close.

Having lived in rural New Hampshire at one time I can personally attest to the value of neighbors. We lived on a dirt road that come winter or even worse, the snow melt that turned dirt to tire sucking mud, it was very handy to have the county road agent as our closest neighbor. On his way to work in the frosty morning he would stop by our driveway and make a pass with his big grader before continuing on down the road clearing a path for the rest of us. In return, when the mud season had passed I, along with my neighbors further down the road would clear the drainage ditches that had accumulated their share of stones from the grader’s passage. That’s what neighbors do—they take care of each other without being asked to do so.

On year, another neighbor, a dairy farmer, became ill during haying season and just as he was putting up a new barn for his silage. A few of us took turns getting up in the dark to milk his cows, and others brought in his hay. Together a team of us finished the barn. We did not expect any remuneration, and while the family did throw a picnic later in the year by way of saying thank you, no one needed or expected it. It was enough to know that any of us in a similar position could count on help.

Now this might sound like simple reciprocity, I do this for you, and you do that for me. But it isn’t that simple at all. It is the golden rule in the flesh, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The key is that no one ever asked for help—what kindnesses were done were without expectation of a payback. But there is a downside to this kind of investment in one’s neighbors too. Your life is an open book in a small town. Everyone knows you and way too much about how you live your life. It can be downright creepy, whether well intentioned or not. That’s the part of good fences making for good neighbors we don’t always think about.

As it applies to human relations on a broader scale, there are a few lessons worth considering. The first is to be invested in one another—to think about the needs of others and act on them without expecting or needing thanks, much less a reciprocal response. At the same time, respect the fence, it is there for a good reason. It isn’t to keep people out—but to maintain a respectful distance that does not encourage anyone to mind what others say or do as long as it doesn’t harm a member of the community. There is a lot of minding of other people’s business going on these days, most of it not well intentioned but invasive, phobic, and self-righteous. Finally, remember that you and your neighbors have a common responsibility. If the road doesn’t get plowed, no one can drive on it. If the rocks in the ditch don’t get removed someone gets hurt or flooded, or an expensive piece of equipment gets damaged. One way or the other, the system breaks down, because taking care of the commons is everyone’s responsibility.

Now the lessons I observed in a small rural community may seem folksy and quaint but of little relevance to the way most of us live. After all I hardly know my neighbors in my suburban community. I am not unfriendly—and I don’t think they are either, but we all keep to ourselves most of the time. I go out of my way to do small things, shovel a walk for a neighbor I know is elderly, clean up the pine cones and straw that litter the street after a storm. On the rare occasions when someone asks why I say it is self protective—what I don’t clean up will wind up in my yard one day. The truth is while that is very true it isn’t the reason—it is a small experiment to see if I can encourage that spirit of caring for one another and caring for the common responsibilities. It is a work in progress.

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