When we moved into our house eight years ago, it had a beat-up old fence around the property. Without a dog, we didn’t have use for the fence, so we took it down. The following summer we invested in several young trees and plants to brighten up the yard. Unfortunately, we watched the neighborhood deer grow faster than the plants as they ate every last one of them.
It turns out, we needed a fence after all.
We contemplated several designs and landed on a hog-panel fence for its appearance, function and price. If you’re not familiar, a hog panel fence uses 4-foot pieces of hog wire surrounded by a two-by-four frame and joined together at four-by-four posts. It creates a fence you can see through, but still looks decent and is high enough to keep (most of) the deer out.
Over the years since building this fence, our neighbors on both sides of our house and across the alley have become some of our closest friends. On any given day, it is common to see various configurations of the nine adults, two children and two dogs talking together or helping each other with a project. We share things like kitchen items, tools and a lawn mower (that’s not a typo, we literally all share one lawn mower).
Recently each of the other three families also decided to build fences. One was to contain a new puppy, another to keep the same pesky deer out of their new landscaping, and the third in preparation for chickens. Each chose a variation on the hog panel design, ensuring we could continue to see in and out of each other’s yards.
Despite all the new fences, very little has changed in the feeling of our neighborhood. It is still quite easy to see who is out in their backyard, who has a little extra meat on the grill to share, and who might need help getting off a roof (yes, this actually happened at the conclusion of a roof-building project). During one gathering, we even took down some panels in our fence to make it easier to move between backyards.
Over the course of this summer we have leaned on our neighbors to navigate unprecedented challenges and talk through contentious issues. We don’t all agree on every topic, and we certainly won’t all vote the same way Nov. 3ut we aren’t afraid to bring up loaded subjects, ask questions with curiosity instead of judgment and take the time to consider one another’s point of view.
In this way, our individual values and perspectives are akin to the sturdy pieces of wood holding together the structure and framework of a hog panel fence. But the open space in the middle allows us to freely exchange ideas and opinions without feeling disdain for someone else.
With the election only a few weeks away, I keep hearing the comment, “I can’t wait for this all to be over,” which sort of makes me scratch my head. I find it exceedingly difficult to imagine the contempt and unrest we’ve found ourselves in will magically disappear Nov. 4. Instead, I see several scenarios where people march out to their 8-foot privacy fences and reinforce them with a few more boards of anger and outrage.
Now for the self-reflection part of this column. What kind of fences are you building around your opinions? Can you see into another person’s perspective with respect and curiosity? Do the gates of your values swing wide to welcome a neighbor for a conversation? Would you be willing to take down an entire panel to make someone feel more comfortable visiting?
You might be saying to yourself “this sounds nice, but it’s not realistic” or “clearly you haven’t met my neighbors!” Perhaps. But if my neighborhood can do it, so can yours. And I’m not only referring to your literal neighbors.
Start small. Rake your neighbors' leaves alongside your own (even if you have to rake around the political sign of a candidate you’re not voting for). Drop a six-pack of beer on the desk of a co-worker who has opposing views on fill-in-the-blank issue. Call a family member who has been driving you crazy on social media and tell them something you appreciate about them.
It’s even OK if your actions are more warm-hearted than your actual feelings toward that person. Studies show that simple acts of kindness and gratitude can be enough to lessen contempt and anger toward a collective group. Action precedes attitude more than we might realize.
If you are still reading and remain skeptical (which would be an odd combination in today’s world, so I salute you), consider a study by Matthew Lieberman. This study was quoted in the book by Arthur C. Brooks, “Love your Enemies”, which I highly recommend. The study finds that seeing your neighbors every day results in the equivalent of a $60,000 annual pay increase in your happiness. The most amazing part of that statistic is that I whole-heartedly believe it.
There’s just enough of the fall season left to work on that hog panel fence if you hurry. And if you need some help, call a neighbor.