Chesterton’s Fence

Got a bit irked or maybe inspired this morning by a friend. They had a complaint about a fairly common saying that made no sense to them and went off on a rant that turned into a tirade by the time they were done. I won’t mention the topic, because that would out them too easily, but it got me to thinking about why they were so upset.

I’m pretty sure, without asking, that the subject was a colloquialism that didn’t grow up around here, wherever here happened to be for them. But the tirade was the interesting part.

I put a lot of it down to that late stretch of things when the pandemic is (hopefully) on the downhill slope. Folks are starting to get vaccines that work. The worst part of 2020 might be over. At the same time, it is not yet wise to toss your mask into the trash and go back to where you were two years ago. In Washington State, I am on a list, but I am in the LAST category that will get their shots. Before, that meant maybe as late as fall, but not it means that I ought to be able to get my shots by June 1, if all goes well.

There are still a lot of folks falling ill. And a lot of folks dying. The numbers are down, but not zero. There is time yet we have to deal with.

So folks are stressed. Stay stressed. And it comes out in frustration with the way things are now, when people see how they could be so much better, if only…

And that leads me to Chesterton’s Fence. President Kennedy liked to quote the man and his fence.

G.K. Chesterton ( was a giant of a man, physically as well as intellectually. He is best known, however for his fence.

Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Translated into a more modern vernacular, it deal with folks that want to change everything, because they don’t like the way it used to be. In this case, my friend was frustrated at a lot of other things, but ranted on this topic mostly because I don’t think they understood the point of the saying that had set them off.

As a result, all things had to change, because obviously something was WRONG!

Wasn’t, but my father always told me to never argue with a fool because bystanders couldn’t tell the difference.

So when you encounter a popular saying that is extremely old, my immediate conclusion isn’t to “fix” it, but to understand where it comes from.

In the context of Chesterton’s Fence, to understand why it was put up in the first place. The saying was an old one. Popular, but not local to my friend. Didn’t mean it meant anything less. I grew up with the saying, but I also knew what it meant, whereas they hit it cold this morning and bubbled over with rage and frustration.

These are frustrating times. I get that. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still have to walk there.

Something irritates you and you simply over-react.

Stop and breathe instead. Think about it. Ask yourself why the fence was built there in the first place, because somebody else had a good reason at the time. Doesn’t mean you can’t take it down, but you need to know what purpose it serves before destroying it and making things worse.

We all over-react.

However, the important lesson these days is to stop and breathe. I have told more than one person lately that each of us gets up in the morning and decides if we will be helpful or toxic.

When you got out of bed, did you decide you wanted to be nice and friendly to complete strangers, or an asshole to everyone you encounter?

You make that decision. And you make it every morning. Every afternoon. You chose to be an asshole. To be toxic. To explode all over someone who didn’t do anything to warrant your vitriol at all besides not popping you in the gob when you got mouthy.

(In the internet age, far fewer people are getting the sort of pop in the gob that would teach them better manners around strangers, but that’s another topic for another time.)

Who did you decide to be this morning? That’s what it comes down to. Did you see Chesterton’s Fence standing arrogantly athwart your path and go into a destructive rampage? Because now the cows are out and wandering all over the countryside. Did you think only of yourself, rather than stopping to ask if what you were doing was helpful to others?

Don’t let the frustration overtake you. I understand the clarion call of rage as a tool. (Oh, trust me, I truly understand that concept.) But you get judged by total strangers for it. It becomes your reputation, and then you don’t get to make a better second impression on them, because they already know you are a hothead with a temper problem.

The world will get there. Rome was not built in a day, it did not fall in a day. It fell because people thought more of themselves than of others.

What have you done today to make the world a better place? Or worse?

One thought on “Chesterton’s Fence

  1. Caroline Wolfram

    ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’ comes to mind. Archaic, but still valid. Very insiteful essay. Especially like the a-hole or no a-hole decision – so true. Another is ‘What am I going to want to be remembered for or what will I be most proud of on my death bed?’ Morbid, but sobering. We only have so much time…how’s about we don’t piss it away being a dick? 😉

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