The Lost Art of Sharing

The Lost Art of Sharing

When I was a child, my family shared an aluminum extension ladder with the Harmon clan and another neighbor on Long Island. Sometimes finding it was a kind of shell game: which garage, shed, or porch is the ladder under now? The money saved by not buying our own ladders couldn't have been much, but the Harmons had 10 kids, and I had four brothers, so every little bit helped. And how often did any of us need a ladder?

The boundary between us and the Harmons was vague. We played football and baseball on our amalgamated lawn. Every now and then, someone would postulate where the line lay — from said tree to yonder bald spot in the grass — but nobody cared. Both families mowed a little into what each assumed to be the other's side.

Willie Harmon and I took the art of trespass to a new level. We built our forts on other people's property. There was the underground bunker in Mad Morty's lower lot, which wasn't found until after he died. Our pièce de résistance, however, was the log cabin we erected in the hilly copse behind the Mullhausens' place. (In our defense, we commenced logging only after we ran out of fallen trees.) Willie and I slept in it overnight more than once.

I don't trespass now as much as I used to. Our neighbor in Connecticut does plow our driveway and mow our hay field gratis, and he stores the bales in our ancient barn for his cows. When Rob and Helen are away, I feed their cows, which is generally easy, except for the time when they all got out and went exploring. From time to time, Rob shares surplus venison or beef, and we share organic vegetables. We cut firewood together at times and share a hand tamper, too, though neither of us can find it lately or remember who owns it.

About now you've probably pegged me as an aging hippie high on homegrown, bent on converting the world to some hillbilly version of Euro-socialism. Perish the thought. I am a dyed-in-the wool capitalist, having started and run a profitable business for eight years and worked as a self-employed freelance writer for longer than that. Let me also point out that the patriarch of the Harmon cohort was a Goldwater Republican, and that Rob and I, as best I can tell from his bumper stickers, are 180 degrees apart politically.

The point I am sidling up to is that sharing is becoming a lost art for many of us, myself included. The examples recounted above, whatever their intangible benefits, have self-interest at their core. They are more bartering than sharing. I give, and I get or save money in return.

Nothing wrong with that, but there's more to sharing. I could volunteer for things, but I prefer to write a token check. I belong to the local land trust, but I never take part in its meetings or outings. I don't go to school reunions or join civic organizations. Heck, I could start by simply being nicer to family, friends, and strangers.

We are more adept today at withdrawing into our personal cocoons, clutching what is ours (starting with the remote) and compulsively pecking at our iPhones, suspicious of others, standoffish even with neighbors, and fond of our fences.

Look at our politics. Neither party wants to share governance anymore. The other side isn't merely wrong; it is diabolically so. There are Christians running for high office who are demonstrably uncharitable in spirit, one of whom said plainly the other day that he is not concerned about the very poor. Instead of being part of the solution to our national challenges, America's rich have by and large decided to keep a firm grip on all their toys.

Have you noticed that there are more fences than there used to be? I went back to see the house that my parents lived in for 50 years, and now I know exactly where the boundary between the Holahans and the Harmons lay. The new owners have erected a long, black, wrought-iron fence.