Cliffs, Fences, and Ambulances

In a country that is metaphorical, yet more real than you’d like to think, is a valley. At one end stands a precipitous cliff. A small town nestles near its foot, and its residents often walk along the top of said cliff. The question is: which is the wiser choice? Should they fence the cliff? Or put an ambulance in the valley?

I found this old gem of a poem in a book of poems entitled Best Loved Poems of the American People. Although at first glance it may seem like just a humorous poem about a fictional valley and the cliff above it, I think of it as a metaphor from which we can glean very real and practical truths.

Incidentally (shout out to Jeff Rutherford of Necessary and Proper Government), this is a great jumping-off point to an explanation of how I got where I am, politically speaking. 🙂

So enjoy, if you will, the poem entitled A Fence or an Ambulance, by Joseph Malins. (Written in 1895.)

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‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,

Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;

But over its terrible edge there had slipped

A duke and full many a peasant.

So the people said something would have to be done,

But their projects did not at all tally;

Some said, “Put a fence around the edge of the cliff,”

Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,

For it spread through the neighboring city;

A fence may be useful or not, it is true,

But each heart became brimful of pity

For those who had slipped over that dangerous cliff;

And the dwellers in highway and alley

Gave pounds or gave pence, not to put up a fence,

But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,

“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,

It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much,

As the shock down beloww when they’re stopping.”

So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,

Quick forth would these rescuers sally

To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,

With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me

That people give far more attention

To repairing results that to stopping the cause,

When they’d much better aim at prevention.

Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,

“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;

If the cliff we will fence we might also dispense

With the ambulance down in the valley.”

“Oh, he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,

“Dispense with the ambulance? Never!

He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;

No! No! We’ll support them forever.

Aren’t we picking up folks  just as fast as they fall?

And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?

Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,

While the ambulance works in the valley?”

But a sensible few, who are practical too,

Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;

They believe that prevention is better than cure,

And their party will soon be the stronger.

Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,

And while other philanthropists dally,

They will scorn all pretense and put up a stout fence

On the cliff than hangs over the valley.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,

For the voice of true wisdom is calling,

“To rescue the fallen is good, but ‘tis best

To prevent other people from falling.”

Better close up the source of temptation and crime

Than deliver from dungeon or galley;

Better put a strong fence round the top of the cliff

Than an ambulance down in the valley.

Although this is not part of my ongoing series on meditation, it is indeed something to think about.

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