We live in an old school neighborhood that still has alleys. Oh sure, some streets have that modern luxury of the front driveway and the garage, but most of us are cruising up and down the one lane alleys and parking in back. It creates some funny dynamics (kids who are very confused about the front and back door). It creates some hard realities (the city doesn’t clear snow from alleys). But it also means you tend to be closer to people who share your alley than the people who live across the street. Strange, I know.
Behind us lives an older gentleman who fills his days with caring for his little dogs and watching his grandkids, both of which primarily take place in his backyard. At least, that’s what I think he does with his time. I can hear the dogs yipping. I can hear the grandkids jumping on the trampoline. But I don’t see him or the dogs or the grandkids. I actually haven’t actually talked to him since he built a privacy fence about two years ago.
That’s the nature of fences, I guess. To keep people out. To give us full autonomy over our own space, so that no one can look in or impose or wander into our yard. Fences solidify boundaries. Clarify property lines. Give us a sense of our space.
And so it goes.
I’ve thought so much about this situation lately, about the man who lives back there and how there was a time when I used to talk to him every day. He would yell and greet the kids. He would comment on the weather or the trashmen being late or the latest graffiti in the alley. His little dogs would bark wildly at my kids as we piled out of the van.
And then the fence went up. And that was that.
There’s a lot I could observe in regards to all this. I could ponder why I didn’t pursue, why I haven’t pushed in, why in two years I’ve never just walked around the block to knock on his front door and check in.
I could contrast that relationship with our other side neighbors and how, with those neighbors, we tore down the fence between us. Naturally there’s been an opposite effect, one of lives growing together and shared space.
But that’s not the thought that has been gnawing at me. Instead, I think this:
We build privacy fences. We curate what people know about us. We don’t drop in on people, don’t want to impose on others. We schedule play dates, not because we are crazy helicopter parents but because we live in a world where kids don’t actually overlap much unless we work at it. We can correspond without seeing each other, even without hearing a voice. We are mobile in every way thinkable so we’re never completely away from work, never entirely away from our kids, never really away at all.
Facebook enables us to know what our friends from high school had for breakfast; but we don’t know the names of our neighbor’s grandkids.
The world rushes on and we know it- we know it from our news feed or a glance at twitter or a story blowing up over several different media. We are overwhelmed by heaps of information, useless chatter, and the turmoil of a broken world that groans even as the earth spins.
We are grossly over-informed and painfully under-connected.
No wonder we’re so lonely.
Our fences that protect us, that give us space, that mark out what’s ours, those fences also divide us from the people we could be forced to know.
I’m not saying don’t build fences. I’m all for safety and boundaries and providing a little piece of the world where you can exhale and put your feet up. The trick is, you have to remember to open the gate, to look over the top, to invite people into your space and your life.
There’s something about the hiddeness in our souls that begins to sour a bit, to get a little dusty, to play tracks on repeat that may not be the music we really want to dance to. We are not the best versions of ourselves when we’re living in isolation. On my own, I become a caricature of my true self, I replay my mistakes on full blast, and I embrace the voice of my inner critic as though it is the Holy Spirit itself. But with others, truth comes to light and the overplayed myths I’ve been clinging to, well, they seem to be exposed for what they are.
I love Bonhoeffer’s words from Life Together.
“Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth…his own heart is uncertain; his brother’s is sure.”
Oh, friends. Check your fences. Consider the ways you’ve walled others off. Ask yourself how your soul is doing, if it is thriving in light or if it is growing dim. The love we have for each other, the grace we can offer and the hope that we share, those are the reasons to pick up the phone or stop by a friend’s or step up on a bucket to talk over the fence.
Good luck with that. I mean it. I know it’s hard. Privacy feels like a well-earned luxury, and it is in some ways. But be careful when your privacy leads not to rest but to isolation.
I know that life together is hard. I don’t pretend that community is free or easy or without cost. I only assert that it is worth the effort.
So tear down a fence or two. Your friends (and your soul) will thank you.