Of my many jobs throughout my life, I still trip on my first job “on the books”. I worked as a carpenter and roof repairman in a summer youth employment program. Yes, back in the “old days”, summer youth workers didn’t file and make photocopies... we worked. I spent many a day in 90+ degree heat on hot tar roofs trying to earn my $2.65/hr. thinking, “I don’t know what I’m going to do for a living, but however long I have to stay in school I’m gonna make sure it’s inside”. I didn’t like the roofing part (fear of heights), but I did like the carpentry part. I like building and fixing things, and mending porches, doorways and fences was right up my alley.
I always thought the phrase “mending fences” was an interesting way to look at people fixing a relationship. I looked at it from a couple of ways. One way I looked at it was a fence being different parts with different purposes that have to come together for a reason that is bigger than the any of the parts themselves. In freshman psychology class we learned that was Gestalt theory: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. So the people involved realize that they are better together than they are apart, and focus on the good rather than the bad. Another way I looked at it was the process of working on a fence together. People can often work out their issues when they focus on a mutual interest rather than on the relationship. Then the conversation can ease into and out of their issues as they feel comfortable talking about it, but as long as the fence is being mended they feel something is being accomplished, and they don’t feel the pressure of the focus being about them.
There were a couple more ways I saw it, but as I thought about them, my mind got to the point where I was preoccupied with the damage to the fence, and does mending the fence sometime gloss over the damage done. So much of mending fences comes down to one or more of the parties involved apologizing for something they said. Once the apology is given and accepted, things move on. But it is often the case that an apology is not enough. Looking at the fence as an example, if someone drove a nail in a fence in a place that it didn’t belong, it would damage the stability of the wood. You could pull the nail out, but it will still leave a whole. You can paint over the nail hole and it will look like new, but the damage to the wood still exists underneath. After a time, the stability of the fence as a whole may be weakened by that point in the fence, and may break down the line despite the fact that “things look fine”.
And so it is with hurtful words and the apologies that are given to correct them. Every time you hurt someone, it’s like driving a nail through wood. The apology then becomes like pulling the nail out; while the action to apologize/pull the nail is done with an honest effort, there is still a hole left behind. The person receiving the apology can choose to put a new coat of paint on the hole, and they may function as strong as a freshly painted, freshly mended fence. But deep inside, whether they ever show the effects or not, the damage is there. Many people look at relationships they have with people that have overcome rocky times, and they are happy about it. But for some reason it seems like despite the fact that the other person says everything is alright, they “have changed”. The truth is, they didn’t change, they “were changed”, by the nail that was driven into them.
So how do you really mend the fence? For an actual fence, there is always wood filler. If you fill the hole in with this simulated wood product, it returns the original integrity to it. Sometimes it even becomes stronger than the actual wood around it. In the absence of the wood filler, the hole can fill up with water, insects, or some other thing that will begin to hurt the good wood around the hole. When someone experiences hurtful words: false accusations; unfair or untrue characterizations; constant negativity, disrespect, or degradation; etc.; they are weakened by them… just as the nail weakens the wood. Sometimes, even after an apology, the hole becomes filled with anger, or insecurity, or sadness, or an uncaring attitude, or sometime just an empty feeling. What began as a small thing can eventually affect other non-related qualities of the person, and even their spiritual strength and health. So the hole must be filled with what was taken away by the nail. If you falsely accuse someone of lying, you need to compliment their honesty. If they were hurt by being told they can’t do something, they need to be reassured that you have confidence in what they can do. If you tell a child they are ugly, you need to repeatedly tell them they have a special kind of beauty. The bottom line is, you need to fill the hole. And what if there is not damage left after the initial apology? Actually, that is usually the case. Usually, there is no further need to address the situation. But then again, you can’t go wrong reinforcing something good… as long as it’s attention and not overkill.
Fixing the damage to the fence helps the carpenter as well as the fence. Isn’t it good to know that you care enough to make sure you don’t leave a damaged situation behind. Guilt over doing someone wrong is a tough thing to deal with, but not nearly as harmful long-term as an attitude that “what’s done is done”… or “oh well...” or “deal with it”. When your mind and heart become as calloused as a carpenters hands, it makes it just as hard to show gentleness… or to have that gentleness accepted when you do show it. You should always apologize when you’ve wronged someone, but when possible you should also make “amends”. It is good for both parties. And if the person isn’t ready to accept the apology, give it time and come back again (the key is not ready to accept vs. not willing to accept). Sometimes wood filler works better after the wood dries out a little.
I’m into chain link fences now, so it’s a lot harder for me to damage them. But while I may deal with different people, people are still the same. When damaged, they still need mending. But I also know that the best way to avoid having to mend a fence is to watch what nails I use and where I place them. As for people, the best way to avoid having to mend them is to watch what words I use and how I say them. Old ones or new ones, you can’t go wrong mending fences.