Favorite Authors, G.K. Chesterton, Lifestyle

Chesterton’s Fence

It seems to me that we are living in incredibly reactive times. Information comes at us increasingly fast, events happen quickly and are almost instantly communicated around the world, and we rarely have time to slow down and reflect on any new developments and their impacts. Emotions run high, fear is everywhere around us, and we are seeking a sense of stability and order. We are willing to jump on board with anything that seems like it might bring some sanity back into our lives.

Everything feels unfamiliar and uncertain, but are we to accept the first solution presented? Not necessarily, and not without due thought and process given.

Allow me to share some food for thought that I have been chewing over, courtesy of G.K. Chesterton.

From an essay in his 1929 book, The Thing, Chesterton posits this metaphor:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law: let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

There is a lot that I don’t know about the world. But there is a lot that other people don’t know world about the world, either. However, the crucial factor these days is that we have forgotten how much we don’t know about the world, which is the first step to remedying the matter.

If you are calling for an institution to be reformed, do you understand how and why it was formed in the first place? If you are calling for new policies and procedures that will affect great swathes of people, do you understand why such policies may not have been implemented before this particular crisis?

One of the keys to good debate is understanding the opposing side, which is something that seems extremely lacking in modern rhetoric. We are so concerned with shouting our opinions and feeling heard that we often fail to seek understanding of the other person. And I will tell you plainly, shouting at someone will never convince them of the point you are trying to make. Unless the point is how loud and obnoxious and threatening you can be. But especially if you find yourself in disagreements with friends and family, people that you genuinely love, why would you not want to understand their side of things? Why would you not want them to understand your side of things? Why would you not want to behave civilly and calmly and with compassion for whatever they might be struggling with? If you truly think that someone you care about has no regard for human life, that should concern you! You should seek to understand and help them, for the sake of their own life and soul. And if you find yourself disagreeing with someone whose wisdom and advice you normally value, perhaps it’s worth considering your own conclusions and how you came to them.

None of us are all-knowing, we all have our prejudices and our blind-spots, and that is true all the way up the hierarchy.

But we are all unique individuals, gifted with intelligence, free-will, and initiative. We can look beyond the status quo and educate ourselves so that when we take a stand on something, we are satisfied in our own conscience that it is the right stand to take. We can treat others with compassion and love, acknowledging that they are also unique individuals, with their own fears and hardships but also with their own strengths and wisdom. We can learn from each other, but only if we stop shouting and shutting each other down.

In this same essay, Chesterton discusses the difference between domestic and governmental justice, “If Tommy takes a silver thimble out of a work-basket, his mother may act very differently according as she knows that he did it for fun or for spite or to sell to somebody, or to get somebody in trouble. But if Tomkins takes a silver thimble out of a shop, the law not only can but must punish him according to the rule made for all shoplifters or stealers of silver. It is only the domestic discipline that can show any sympathy or any humour.” We have lost the sense of this domestic discipline in nearly every area of life, as we make blanket rules and statements that fail to ever take in individual cases and circumstances. What a grace it is that God judges us as His sons and daughters, and not merely as “citizens”.

As we all try to navigate this ever-changing world, we must give ourselves time to pause. We must “Go away and think” before making pronouncements and falling into line. And we must remember that ultimately we are responsible first for our own actions, for the love and the charity that we show to others.

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