The Boy on the Fence

*Photo credit Keith Maguire

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who sat on a fence. This fence was actually the little boy’s home. He had lived there with his family his whole life. And there were lots of other people who lived on the fence, too.

It really wasn’t a great place to live. It resembled a wide wall more than it did a traditional fence, but it was still confining and uncomfortable. However, all the boy had ever known was life on the fence, so he didn’t realize how silly it was to live there.

It was a safe place to live. A long time ago, a group of people had chosen to stay on the fence and live there in order to protect themselves and their families from the lands on either side of the fence.

You see, the fence stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see and separated two very different lands. One of the lands looked like it came right out of a postcard. The sun was always shining on the green, green grass, the blooming flowers, the birds in the trees filling the air with their music, and the bunny rabbits happily hopping through the fields.

Almost everyone who lived on the fence visited the sunny land from time to time. Most people were only gone for four or five hours, and occasionally some would be gone for a day or two. But they always came back to the fence.

The elders, who were the leaders and also the oldest people who lived on the fence, said that it was not wise or safe for anyone to ever visit the sunny land. While the others respected the elders, and even loved them, they didn’t really listen to them.

Once in a very great while, someone would leave the fence and not come back. When the people on the fence realized that the person was gone for good, they would not speak of that person again. And no one ever really talked about what they did over in the sunny land or what it was like.

This whole situation made the little boy very curious. He did not understand what made the sunny land unsafe; it looked harmless to him. And if it was unsafe, then why did everyone go there and come back unharmed? And why was it okay to visit the sunny land, but not okay to live there? And why didn’t anyone obey the elders’ command to stay on the fence?

The little boy was too young to climb down from the fence by himself, but he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Someday, he told himself, he would explore the sunny land.

On the other side of the fence was a land that was as different from the sunny land as night is from day. The sun never shone on this land, and there were dark clouds that always covered the whole sky, but it never rained. No flowers or grass grew there, and the trees were barren and lifeless. No animals of any kind had ever been seen or heard, although at times strange and loud noises could be heard from beyond the dark mountains.

No one ever visited the dark land. Everyone knew it was much too risky, too dangerous to go there. According to the legends, death lurked around every corner. It was clearly not a safe place to even visit.

Every evening at sunset, the elders, who remembered the old ways, would gather the people on the fence and tell stories. They told of their ancestors, who had lived long ago before the fence was even built. Their ancestors had been great men and women who had left the sunny land and sought out adventures in the dark land. There were stories of danger and bravery, camaraderie and sacrifice, dragons slain and treasures found.

The little boy loved to listen to the stories. He would sit back on the fence, close his eyes, and imagine what it would be like to have been one of them. He wondered if those days would ever live again…

Time passed, and the little boy grew up. He was now of the age that he could choose his own path. Many of his friends had already begun visiting the sunny land. They would return to the fence at night, and try their best to convince the boy to go with them the next day.

At first the boy resisted, but one day he decided to go. That day, they raced each other through fields, played ball, and watched clouds go by as they lay on a hillside. Later they wandered to a village, where they met boys and girls who lived in houses, ate meals around tables, and slept in beds.

It was all a little overwhelming for the boy. It was so different from his life on the fence. It was wonderful, and yet strangely odd. No one in the village ever did any work, and they all were so preoccupied with having fun that they seemed tired and, almost, unhappy.

The boy and his friends returned late at night to the fence. Everyone was asleep. Before they climbed back up, one of his friends said, “I’ve made up my mind. This is my last night on the fence. I’ve got an uncle in the village, and tomorrow I’m going to see if I can live with him.”

That night the boy could not sleep. His mind was racing, thinking about his day and about his friend’s decision. He sat up and noticed one of the elders was still awake, too. He had his hands clasped tightly together and seemed to be staring intently towards the dark land.

The boy carefully walked over to the elder and sat down beside him. The elder looked up briefly, then rested his head back on his hands. “Sir, may I ask you a question?” the boy asked. The elder nodded, smiling kindly.

“What is unsafe about the sunny land? Why can’t we live there, and be in houses and sleep in beds?”

There was a long silence. The boy wondered if the elder had heard him, but finally he spoke:

“It is not safe in a way that is different from how the dark land is not safe. It is more comfortable and enjoyable than living here, but if you lived there, that place would change you. The happiness found there is a hollow, empty feeling that does not last. In time you would find yourself consumed by your pursuit of happiness but unable to find lasting satisfaction.

“The pleasures there become a trap, a prison of your own making, and few are able to break out. We are meant to live for so much more than simple pleasures and the empty pursuit of them. The best things in life cannot be found in the sunny land.”

The boy thought about this for quite some time. A thought struck him, as he looked towards the dark land with the elder.

“Can those better things you’re talking about be found here on the fence… or can they only be found over there?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

The elder chuckled to himself. “Yes, that is the question, isn’t it. I had always believed that if we just tried a little harder, we would find those things here. But I am beginning to realize that this is not the case at all. I am afraid we may have made a terrible mistake settling on this fence. Let me tell you the story behind the fence:

“Hundreds of years ago, everyone lived in the sunny land. One day, a stranger appeared and began to tell anyone who would listen about a different way to live. This man captured the attention of many people because they could see that he had true happiness. He talked about how living in a different way, his way, would bring true meaning to life and that it was the only way to truly live.

“There were many people who had become dissatisfied with life in the sunny land, who wanted more out of life than just the comfort and pleasures. The teachings of this stranger rang true in their hearts, and they followed him wherever he went.

“One day he led them there… to the dark land. At this point most turned away and would no longer follow, but a few trusted this man with their very lives. They entered the dark land, and everything changed.

“They learned that true happiness is found in contentment; that joy is found in sorrow and suffering; and that life is found in death. They realized that by giving up everything, they had finally found something worth living for.

“One of the Teacher’s most common sayings was, ‘Until you are ready to truly die, you are not able to truly live.’ That is what our ancestors discovered to be true in the dark land. And that is why they had such amazing lives. They had finally found real life, and in the most unlikely of places!

“Even though the dark land was now their home, they had not forgotten the people in the sunny land. They would often take trips back to the sunny land, and try to persuade anyone to come and find life. A small number joined them, but the vast majority was too entrenched in their lives.

“The hearts of our ancestors were burdened. They knew they had to do something, so after much deliberation they decided to build a bridge that would make it easier for the people of the sunny land to cross over to the dark land. They could come explore the bridge and even live on it, and many chose to do so.

“But very few moved from the bridge to the dark land, so our ancestors made the decision to live on the bridge, too. They thought this would help, and it would also keep them that much closer to the people of the sunny land. However as time went on they began to forget certain things the Teacher had said, and they stopped going into the dark land and began to think living on the bridge was good enough…

“… and the bridge turned into a fence.”

When the elder finished, he and the boy sat quietly on the fence looking into the dark. The boy’s mind was spinning… if what the elder was saying was true…

The elder cleared his throat. “All of my life I have believed living on the fence was good enough. I believed that we were still trying to do the work of our ancestors, and even be like them. But the truth is we have become just like the people of the sunny land; we just think we’re different because we live on this fence.

“We have become so comfortable living on this awful fence, that we are all too afraid to get down from it and live in the dark land where we belong.”

The boy spoke in a small voice, “I am afraid. But there is something inside me that wants to go there. I think I have felt this way since I was a little boy. I just did not fully recognize it until now.”

“I agree with you,” said the elder with a sad look in his eye. “However, it has taken me my whole life to get to this point, and now I fear it is too late. I do not know what to do.”

The boy looked at his elder, then looked out into the dark, unknown world. “Do you know what I think we should do?” he paused. “Take down the fence.”

And that is exactly what they did.