Fenced In

Lack of progress is often addressed with the ‘we can do better’ call to action. Things will get better if we just man the boat and check the weather. There is an assumption that everyone is sailing on the same winds. When in fact, there are people in the boat tacking against the wind or dropping the sails completely.

The naysayers can have the best intentions in mind. The naysayers can further the direction of the journey by making others fight for it, define it even further than they had originally considered. The naysayers help refine decisions. But sometimes the naysayer simply sink the ship.

Fences, a play written in 1985, is set in a familial scene where a father naysays his son’s ambitions of becoming a ball player. It didn’t work out so well for him, he reasons, so success will elude his son as well. He will save him the pain. Or will he? Does a father use his power as an adult out of faithfulness to old anguishes, or is he truly acting to cushion his progeny from life’s hardships?

The playwright, August Wilson, doesn’t render judgement.

But anyone who has been around a decade or more knows, to misuse a position of power is to tread away from progress not towards it. In this story, father derails a chance at a football career, so son leaves home and makes good in a military life. You might say he overcame his naysaying father, but at the expense of any further family support through early adulthood. You might say son was better off without them, but at the expense of their greater community.

Wilson, who wrote this Pulitzer prize winner while living in St. Paul, provides more examples of how social exchanges can fence in a family. In business, once the money runs out, no one shows up for work. The business shuts down. In family, chits and obligations can continue to pile up. When left outstanding others must step up to pay the bills. And then possibly others still.

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