More than a century ago in 1914, American poet Robert Frost published “Mending Wall,” and I believe its message is as relevant now as it was then. With so much in the news about wall-building, I return to a favourite of mine, hoping to suggest ways it can still inform us today.
While the entire poem of 45 lines is worth visiting in its entirety, several lines stand out for me. Every spring, Frost and his rural neighbour would walk the stone line separating their properties to repair the damage caused by nature and humans:
“We keep the wall between us as we go…
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
“There, where it is we do not need the wall…
“[My neighbour] only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’…
“[But I wonder]: ‘Why do they make good neighbours?’…
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/
What I was walling in or walling out.”
I am taken by these timeless insights because they hold universal meaning and speak to social as well as individual circumstances. I write as a Canadian, and believe the insights apply to our nation as well as to me personally.
From the time of first contact, settler peoples in our land have created huge walls of separation between ourselves and Aboriginal peoples. To this day, we continue to struggle against barriers to their full equality in spite of our differences. This remains a continuing societal injustice.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, our nation imposed head taxes on Chinese immigrants and other discriminatory regulations against South Asians, making it difficult for them to settle here.
During the 1930s, when desperate Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe arrived at our Atlantic shores, Canada turned back boatloads seeking sanctuary, leaving them with little option but certain death.
Because Japan was our enemy, settlers of Japanese descent saw their Pacific coastal properties confiscated during the Second World War. They were forcibly relocated to live in prison camp conditions in various parts of Canada’s west.
People of Islamic background in Quebec have recently been targeted in their places of worship, while a growing resentment beyond the lunatic fringe across Canada threatens to perpetuate such horrors.
Before we cast stones at other nations, I suggest we take a serious look at our own circumstances of wall-building.
I consider myself a liberal inclusivist in my personal relationships, but sometimes I am shocked to realize just how biased I am in my assessment of those who differ from me racially, or in terms of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour or creed. We who believe ourselves free of such biases need to be constantly challenged to face reality.
Do “good fences make good neighbours”? Perhaps, in certain cases.
But before I decide I need my well-earned space and demand that my privacy requires protection, I might also heed Frost’s sage advice that before I establish a line of demarcation from others, I should be brutally honest with myself about who I am walling in or walling out.