An elderly neighbor lady once told me a story about a fence plagued by vandals. The fence was in a park in her neighborhood at a time of her life when she was involved in local politics. Vandals would destroy part of the fence and she would work to have it rebuilt. The cycle of destruction and restoration repeated many times leaving her frustrated and angry. How can people care so little about their community and why do some people find happiness in destructive behavior?
Upon witnessing her exasperation over the fence, her husband provided her with an explanation. Some people are destroyers and some people are builders. Each person must decide for themselves which of these to be. From that point on she focused on those words each time she had the fence repaired, proudly making peace with her choice to be a builder.
This philosophy of contrasting roles can be applied to many aspects of life. There are listeners and talkers, participants and spectators, givers and takers. Over the course of my first 50 years, I have determined much about which person I am. I am not an artist, but I appreciate the beauty and meaningfulness of artistic creations; I am definitely not an athlete, but I enjoy watching the skill and competitiveness of sporting events; I am not blessed with the gift of gab, but rather provide a listening ear to those in need of an audience.
Owning your role in life and accepting others for who they are, however, is rarely easy. We are inclined to expect others to respond in kind to our actions, convert to our point of view.
Such unwarranted expectations frequently lead to disappointment in others and can be discouraging to fulfilling one’s purpose in life.
I remember a friend calling on my counsel when she found herself discouraged by the path she had chosen for her life. A marriage that was experiencing waning intimacy, the daily demands of being a young mother and the inability to focus on her own life goals. She compared her path in life to mine as if my choices were better, more glamorous. I had a career, no husband, no kids. I had purchased my own home, occasionally traveled for work and leisure, and was free of many of the commitments of her life.
I listened intently to her struggles, hearing the pain in her voice and I proceeded to reassure her of the validity of the choices she had made. I explained to her that business travel is anything but glamorous and all the things that I do on my own really means that I am alone in the world. I have no legacy of children to remain when I am gone. In the process of lifting her up, I was bringing my own life down, a point that was oblivious to her and saddening to me.
After briefly feeling disheartened about myself, I came to the realization that my path was right for me and her path was right for her. It was a little disappointing that a friend would disregard the impact of this conversation on my psychological well being, but I’m a listener and a helper. It’s who I am and what I do best regardless of the response of those I assist.
I should be proud of who I am and not expect others to be exactly like me, but there are challenging days when the desire for reciprocity is overwhelming. These are the days that I find myself questioning why I try. Maybe I should give up and follow in the footsteps of those who turn around and walk away from problem situations, troublesome neighbors, unethical coworkers.
The temptation is strong at times. I could pretend not to see the pain, the disrespect and the dishonesty that exists in the world around me, except for one thing. The fence. Doing nothing is the equivalent of condoning bad behavior and that is not the side of the fence that is right for me.
A sense of peace lives in finding happiness in your own choices and acceptance of the choices of others. Acceptance is difficult in today’s world, so opinionated, so entitled, so quick to anger. If only we could all see the value in others and how that value is beneficial to society.
The artist, the athlete, and the talkers are of little consequence without the other half of the equation. A work of art is of little value if there is no one to be inspired by its beauty and meaning. A victorious conquest is of little significance if there is no one for whom to fight the battle. A voice conveying a message will be unheard if there are no listeners. We are all important no matter on which side of the fence we are standing.
Achieving this level of understanding and acceptance may be beyond human reach. Maybe. But the hope remains alive every time the builders of the world accept their role in life and repair the fence once again.