PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

The Inner Wall

The Inner Wall

On the stage of my childhood, walls were an essential part of the set design. My friends and I hid behind them, skulked along them, vaulted over them, pretended we could see through them, and drew rectangular pitching windows on them for stickball. Once, my brother playfully threw me face first into a bank wall, and I still have the chip in my front tooth to show for it. Unlike so many children in the world, I was blessed with the safety and cozy predictability of real walls to go home to after a hard day of having fun, and I took these walls for granted as all children should be able to do. There were the brownstone walls of our early home in Ozone Park; the rose brick of our bungalow in Laurelton; the concrete-aspiring-to-alabaster of Walden Terrace, our apartment building in Queens. In this apartment, our last home in New York, I remember a rough-plastered wall in the bedroom I shared with my brother, on which we shined the glaring light from a desk lamp and made shadow-animals with our hands as late into the night as we could get away with. Wherever we lived, there were these walls, wonderful walls sustained by my father’s hard work, to keep us safe and snug in our world as surely as did heater warmth in winter and family warmth in all seasons. Had I thought of it, I might have marked my boyhood years by these walls that came and went and changed along the way, recording my early life in a documentary of surfaces and textures.

Viewed this way, walls are more than walls. They are projection screens, mirrors, enemy fortresses, murals, shields behind which boys smoke cigarettes and set off firecrackers and say dirty words, dipping their toes into the pounding currents of manhood, and sometimes slipping through secret doorways into winding tunnels of time. Children know the power of walls instinctively, which is why a toddler will take his crayons to the nearest one as soon as possible. It is as though, even before we have words, the walls around us beg to be written on, to be claimed through some signature, however rudimentary. And no matter how old we get, does it not still come down to this—that our humanness compels us to scrawl in a language we don’t understand, and when we’re done, somehow to read, to make sense of, the handwriting on the wall?

We’ve come so far from those days of crayon innocence; our life’s walls no longer seem like canvases on which to scribble our enthusiasm, our vitality, the unpremeditated colors of ourselves. But what is native to us can never be far from us. Coming back to what is native for me includes the understanding that my life is a story—in fact, a play. As usual, the Old Bard was spot on; metaphorically, the world is a stage, complete with props, scenery, action, dialogue, other characters reading their lines with conviction—a stage on which we act out our inner promptings, see what follows, and move our story along through precipitating event, conflict, climax, denouement. All the elements of good writing, of drama, are present in every life, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes large, because each of us, consciously and unconsciously, is working within the tug and shove of the psyche’s incessant urge to get beyond the walls that hold it back, and by expanding, to become more itself. On this incredible stage of the world, we can confront our inner conflicts and contradictions and move on to what’s next, something easier said than done.

I remember helping two friends, Rich and Shaye, build a two-story pole house by a lake. It was 1972, and we were a motley group of hippies finishing our graduate degrees at the University of Florida. Jimi was there, our Socratic professor and friend. We didn’t suspect then that he would be denied tenure the following year in a political lynching led by ultraconservatives in the philosophy department, that he would pack his canvas horse-feeder bag with a few books, clothes, trail mix, and a bamboo flute, and hitchhike from Gainesville to San Francisco to make a new home on the West Coast. Annie was there at the house-raising, too—voluptuous, flaxen-haired Annie, skinny-dipping in the lake, and as the late afternoon light and water glistened against her skin, it was all I could do to keep my mind on my work.

We were talking the sort of lazy talk that builds houses, when Jimi suggested that I climb onto the roof and try my hand at nailing boards in place. This meant that I’d have to hoist myself through a small opening between the rafters and perch on what seemed to me an unlikely platform—the four-inch strip of roof that had been installed so far—four inches that ended abruptly in a twenty-five-foot fall that ended in a sudden stop and the breaking of things that should not be broken. The mere thought of this tight-wire act was enough to fill me with the nasty chemistry of anxiety. High anxiety. Stalling, I scanned the cage of wood, then looked topside again: Theoretically, I knew that the more roofing boards I hammered in place, the more I’d have to hold on to while I worked, but this wasn’t much comfort, and I began to feel as though I would not be able to muster the courage to move from the safe framework of joists and studs to the daredevil duty waiting for me overhead.

To distract myself, I watched the others laboring away. Annie, mostly—but not just Annie. One shirtless and taut-muscled young acrobat was ambling along the edge of the roof like a gymnast on a balance beam, and I began to feel the jabs of a fast-deflating ego. I can do this, I thought. So, with chugging resolve, buoyed by the need to look good in front of one’s fellows—especially when one’s fellows include Annie—I lifted myself through the opening and emerged, willy-nilly, on the roof of the house. There, I took a few stuttering breaths and smiled wanly, feeling as though I had just taken on Mount Everest and maybe the whole thing wasn’t really such a good idea.

After a few minutes of covert hysteria and roof-clutching, I ventured back to work and soon realized that I could use the claw of the hammer to keep myself in place while I grabbed a nail, and that I could then hook my little finger over the most recently fastened board, holding the nail in position with the same hand. This kept me from sliding even slightly toward the edge and the headlong plunge a breath beyond. In a while, the labor settled into a rhythm: hold on with claw, grab nail, position nail, hook little finger, hammer nail, hold on with claw, grab nail, and so on. Soon, I was shuffling along the sloping roofline, and what had seemed terrifying fifteen minutes earlier was exhilarating.

Annie came slinking out of the water as the sun started to set. A chill had made off with the last of the day’s warmth, and everything was rapidly fading into the tarnished light of evening. Then, from my perch two stories up, I saw something remarkable happen. At the same moment, as though someone had given a secret signal, everyone—about a dozen of us—spontaneously stopped working and turned to watch the sun go down. Long feathers of gray and mottled bands fell across the lake as the last remnants of day sank meditatively into dusk. And I thought, this is what it means to come home. The planet turns a few degrees, and work stops, because we recognize a presence that’s been with us since time began building the house of the world.

Under me, the structure was taking shape. Before long there would be pictures and candles and throw rugs and the smell of cooking when all our work had turned lumber and long hours and aching backs and blisters into a place to live. A home. I remembered gathering my courage and climbing out onto the roof, and there was something familiar about it. Hadn’t I struggled through an opening once before, in a passage far more momentous, to find a world and a home and a self less limited than the one I had known? In the last streaks of light, I scrambled down from the roof knowing that home is just this—the place we keep coming back to, the place we find each time we venture beyond our fears and take a chance—the place where we belong. Throughout our lives, as we move through one opening after another, finding our way, catching our breath, losing and winning, building and doing what we can to steady ourselves through countless sunsets, the only place we’re headed is home.

30 September, 2018


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
| Robert Frost, Mending Wall


The human psyche is like an intricate system of living walls presenting a broad range of architectural styles: brick walls that stop you cold, glass walls you can see through, walls with French doors that invite you in, high walls of learning and status, frescoed walls announcing conspicuous taste, walls taken hostage by everyone else’s graffiti, simple wood-frame walls superbly maintained, like the flawless red-and-white barns that seem to grow wild through the New England countryside.

I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful teachers, people of substance and depth; people who taught me that we need to extend ourselves beyond the walls of old beliefs and unexamined assumptions in order to climb to new physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual elevations, trusting that the next handhold will be there when we reach for it. But this is only half the story. Because at the same time that we need to open, to leap in the faith that we will land well, to say yes and risk who we have been for the sake of being more, we also have to be able to draw boundaries, to make a home within ourselves, to deny access to trespassers, to lock the door when it’s dark outside, to say no.

Many years ago, I taught philosophy to jail inmates as part of a special college outreach program. The readings for the course included the four dialogues of Plato sometimes referred to as The Last Days of Socrates, which comprises the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. In the third of these, Socrates’s old friend Crito offers him a chance to escape, and Socrates turns it down, reasoning that it’s better for him to suffer an unjust execution than to betray his freely accepted duty to obey the laws of the state. My captive audience reacted to this with boos and hisses, and more passion and involvement in the issues than anything I’d ever seen in a college or university classroom, where the imprisoning walls are far less apparent. Most of all, my inmate students were struck by the fact that even while doing time on death row, waiting to toss back the nefarious hemlock cocktail, Socrates remained free enough within himself to stay true to what he believed and valued.

Robert Frost could have written his famous something-that-doesn’t-love-a-wall line about prisoners, in and out of the slammer, to be sure—but no less about international affairs, or as a commentary on the state of human affairs at the end of the twentieth century, or an intimate observation on love and family. Think of the husband and wife who sit on either side of a newspaper or a wall of mute resignation, the teenager who can’t talk to parents who love her but they’re too busy trying to fix or rescue or judge her to learn her language, the old woman in a nursing home who’s jailed each day in isolation and loneliness and a life that’s become purposeless in the hour of its richest accumulations.

This is one of the sad ironies of our evolution to date as a species—that while we’ve conquered frontiers of air, land, sea, space, technology, medicine, and knowledge, we’re still flapping to get onto land spiritually, in the way we treat ourselves and each other and our planet. Despite all that we call progress, we haven’t done much to bring down the psychic and political walls that keep us trapped in pain, prejudice, fear, isolation, scapegoating, greed, exploitation, and other blunders of the psyche that never worked and never will no matter how much politicians gift-wrap them in glittering campaign rhetoric, no matter how much their verbal hit men try to spin the simple truth into something else.

Walls have been symbolic of an old world order more rightly described as a disorder. No doubt this is why the human race went out dancing on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Evolutionarily speaking, it was a growth spurt. The uniting of East and West Germany struck us as a powerful metaphor, a harbinger of deeper healings and reunions and possibilities, globally and individually. Soon after the razing of the Wall and the democratic reforms that swept Europe and South Africa came the war in the Persian Gulf, assuring another body count for the twentieth century and reminding us that, despite the pontificating about a so-called new order, despite the real political changes that had taken place, some walls hadn’t even begun to come down; they were just being given a new coat of blood. Then, in December, 1991, the walls securing the now erstwhile Soviet Union crumbled, and with it, Lenin’s utopian experiment. Perhaps in light of all that’s happened since, the rise of terrorism and reactive populist surges, the intrusion of tech giants into our private lives through mobile and “smart” devices, and the exposing of a culture of predatory misogyny and sexual exploitation by those in positions of power and influence, we would be wise to turn our attention to the condition of our own walls.

Walls can keep us imprisoned or call us to newfound freedom. They offer a profoundly useful paradigm for self-examination, allowing us to recognize the ways we cling to the status quo, hold back, keep ourselves and others out, keep life out, keep awareness tied up in safe little habits that do everything but let us live—or the places where we give up walls we need, those psychic boundaries that tell us and others who we are. Some of our most basic beliefs may be called into question along the way. We may encounter the dark corners, steep climbs, towering cliffs, and quicksand pits that always appear when the journey is genuine and not just an advertisement for a new brand of detergent. In such moments, we must remember that a little heroism steels the soul and gives us a sense of worth, that greatness always demands much of us. Perhaps Frost’s line anticipates this, for not loving a wall is not the end of the story but the beginning. If we face our self-made prisons with courage, tearing down walls that overly limit us while acknowledging and securing those that serve us, we find we hold the key to our liberation. In this way, walls can call out the best in us, show us where the next step is, and dare us to take it.

30 August, 2018

Make America Great Again

Make America Great Again

Emma Lazarus’s inspiring poem inscribed on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty beautifully affirms the spirit of America at its best. These days, we have to wonder what became of this America, this nation of compassion and civility and opportunity. At this writing, hundreds of immigrant children, terrified and confused, remain separated from their parents. Worse, hundreds of parents have been deported without their little ones. These families, deeply scarred by a callous, reactionary U.S. immigration policy spend each minute of the day heartbroken, praying, waiting, living for reunion. The ignorance that spawned this humanitarian crisis does not make America great. There can be no greatness without kindness, no national security built on cruelty. Stripped of its glittering rhetoric, “America First!” is a puerile cry that those in power have invoked to ideologize selfishness and rationalize disgraceful violations at every turn—else why would they continually be lying, “walking back,” and denying their actions? Is greatness something that needs constant justification? Pushing to the front of the line with no consideration for who gets hurt in the process is not greatness. Casting America in the role of victim as a pretext for alienating longstanding allies while fraternizing with “strongman” dictators does not make us great, nor does demonizing immigrants. These things are ugly, unworthy of us as a nation, and deeply un-American. They constitute a betrayal of our most noble self-definition. Let those in power take this to heart: Congress must set political self-interest aside and act at once and decisively to repair the untold damage that is being done to our democracy, restore relations with our allies, censure authoritarian regimes, humanize our immigration policy, and salvage our standing on the world stage before it is too late. This, and nothing less, truly will make America great again.

26 July, 2018

Once Upon a Time


New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor

30 June, 2018

The Age of Nations

The Age of Nations

I have had a theory for some time that a century in the life and maturation of a nation is equivalent to a year in the life and maturation of an individual. By that reckoning, India and Egypt, two cultures rooted in the world’s most ancient civilizations, are about 50, Ethiopia 45, and China 42. Greece is around 28. The United States is two and a half.

If we here in the U.S. are in the two’s, it appears to be the proverbial “terrible two’s,” complete with the whole repertoire of willfulness and self-importance that we typically see in children at that age. In the 2016 presidential race, this was fully politicized by Donald Trump as “America First” and promoted under a populist pretext, but that slogan was really just an extension of the same immaturity that’s seen both conservatives and liberals of every stripe insisting for generations that “we’re the greatest nation on earth” (whatever that means) and otherwise indulging in baldfaced self-promoting, chest pounding, and throwing tantrums when things don’t go our way. It is, to understate the matter, deeply concerning. While Democrats were marginalizing blue collar, rural, and less educated citizens, Republicans were shifting to the alt-right, obstructing bipartisan cooperation and pushing their agenda with a narrowly self-serving, “win at all costs” mentality that can only be understood as childish if not infantile. Such behavior is normal and expected in an actual two-year-old. It is another matter when a 40- or 50- or 60- or 70-year-old acts this way. The consequences of this widespread arrested development among the nation’s putative leadership are proving to be disastrous, as the most pressing needs of the country go unmet while the “me first attitude” fosters gridlock, enmity, apathy, a refusal to discuss the issues of the day fairly, and the eternal tabling of critical and morally basic programs. Conspicuously, these include enacting gun control laws to keep our schoolchildren safe in school, ensuring and improving the affordability and accessibility of health care, mandating fair and humane treatment of minorities and immigrants, cooperating with other nations to safeguard the word’s climate, depolarizing race relations especially where the police are involved, and passing responsible Internet privacy legislation to protect users against the sort of gloves-off and unprecedentedly widespread abuse of personal information committed by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, which handled all digital aspects of the Trump campaign, relying largely on deceptive data mining practices (through which it acquired the personal information of millions of Facebook users) and illicit campaign influencing. Investigative reporting brought all this out of the shadows in March—more than a year after the election. In May, Cambridge Analytica closed its doors and filed for insolvency. Even a lickspittle Congress could not keep looking the other way, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was called to Capitol Hill to explain how massive numbers of Facebook users could have been compromised in this way. Zuckerberg apologized, as he has many times, for the lax management of user data, and promised, as he has many times, to treat that data more responsibly.

Sadly, this sort of accountability is the exception that should be the rule. Here in the U.S., laws and policies are designed to protect the financial interests of companies, not the rights of individuals. It is not surprising then, that the dramatically stricter privacy laws that went into effect on Friday last—the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—came out of the European Union. Indeed, as recently as last March, the Republican Congress had struck down landmark internet privacy protections for consumers established under President Obama. Fortunately for all of us, since the Internet is global, companies with international interests have little choice now but to step up to the new GDPR requirements. Why did Congress not only fail to act to protect consumers from privacy abuse by Internet companies, but also try to dismantle the few protections that had been put in place? The answer to this is that Congress is also about two years old, and two-year-olds, who have a famously short attention span, care only about being “number one,” winning at all costs, and getting what they want when they want it. They lack the social development and maturity to consider longterm consequences or the effects of their actions on others even in the short term. It is a mentality that explains why people will shoot each other over a parking space or how a group of politicians can rationalize separating parents and children attempting to immigrate into the country. It has become painfully clear that many if not most of the men and women in Congress and the White House only look like adults. Their behavior, however, gives them away, for adults have an abiding ethical sense, a conscience, an awareness of their limitations, empathy for others, and sufficient responsibility to face and tackle challenging problems especially where the need for solutions is urgent. They do not think only of themselves, their party, their agenda, their career, their reputation. They do not resort to name-calling, scapegoating, distortion and denial of the truth, boasting, overreacting, and magical thinking. They are mature enough to go slowly, consider and reconsider, tell it like it is, and weigh probable outcomes. In the matter of Internet privacy, Europe stepped in and did what Congress would not do, and consumers here in the U.S. will be better off for it, more secure and less subject to corporate exploitation of the privacy that so many Americans have blithely sacrificed for the convenience of an app they can use to change the thermostat setting or an Amazon device designed for convenience but capable of surveillance. Two-year-olds think nothing of going to the bathroom with the door wide open. They are no more concerned with privacy at that age than we have been as a society since the advent of the iPhone and other “smart” devices. And we may fairly ask, why should Congress care more about our privacy than we do? It took Europe, with a far more mature appreciation of the importance of privacy and the dangers of centralized collection of personal data by government and corporations, to get us moving in the right direction.

The theory is not perfect. By my calculus, Russia is about twelve. Yet it would be hard to find a nation on earth that rivals Russia’s political machinations and power mongering not only under Putin but also going back to the Cold War and before, during Stalin’s infamous Great Purge, for example. Iran, about as old as Greece, has not outgrown its long history of sectarian feuding nor recognized the equality and rights of women. One expects more of a nation well past its teenage years. Still, I believe the theory has merit. If nothing else, it might call older nations to start acting their age, and young nations like the U.S. to tone down the rhetoric of childhood, start playing well with others, and return to a less vexing time when we expected our political leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, to bring character, conscience, and an uncompromising commitment to the common good in carrying out the duties of their office. Winning at all costs is too costly. Sowing seeds of social divisiveness, lying to look good or evade the just consequences of one’s actions, putting political agendas above the best interests of the country and all its people, shamelessly trying to justify traumatizing immigrant children by separating them from their parents at the border in the name of national security, flouting our custodial responsibilities to the earth—at the end of the day, these are puerile attitudes that confess arrested development and open the door to disastrous consequences. Perhaps before that happens, we can find a way to grow up.

27 May, 2018

The Shadow

Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parent’s love, put in the bag… Then we do a lot of bag stuffing in high school… We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.
| Robert Bly

The Shadow

Jung’s concept of “the shadow”—those dark elements of the psyche that we push away into the “bag” of the unconscious, that we seek to deny or avoid—ironically sheds a good deal of light on the events that are gathering over Washington D.C. these days like menacing storm clouds. Mr. Trump is, of course, at the epicenter of these developments, a tragic figure whose long history of entitled behavior seems to be catching up with him. Some observing Mr. Trump might think he is nothing but shadow, giving free, unabashed reign to impulses that most of us would feel at least some social obligation to restrain, such as “sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage” (Stephen A. Diamond). Indeed, this explains Mr. Trump’s sudden rise to power in a national election no one believed he could win. The collective consciousness of the nation had had enough of political correctness and elite Democratic thinking that tried to impose its brand of equality and civility by denying the inherent violence of the shadow, a denial personified in Hillary Clinton. The self-important, “when they go low, we go high” and condescending repudiation of the “deplorables” could not withstand the onslaught of Trump’s relentless embodiment of the marginalized shadow. Flouting Democratic values, openly misogynistic and xenophobic, blithely self-promoting and self-serving, racist, boorish, predatory, belligerent—Trump resonated with disenfranchised voters who were fed up with eight years of Democratic idealism and indifference to the dark, politically incorrect, chauvinistic rage that had been incubating within the national psyche. It was this defiant, “gloves off” persona that made Trump seem to them far more honest than Clinton and propelled him into office—a shadow man endorsed by a shadow electorate that was ready to excuse philistine behavior and discount previously central issues of a candidate’s character rather than continue to be sidelined. This is what happens when Dr. Jekyll tries to suppress Mr. Hyde. At some point, Hyde rises up, seizes power, and havoc ensues.

It may well be in our nature to deny the shadow, but as Jung understood, the psyche can never be whole until the shadow is acknowledged and integrated. Certainly we see again and again in philosophical counseling sessions that meaningful change becomes possible only when the client is willing to face the shadow, accept responsibility for his collusion in his suffering, own what had been disowned, and resolve to take a new and better direction. As long as the client is still invested in self-promotion, as long as he is busy defending and explaining and justifying and being right, he remains a victim of his shadow holdings. Moreover, the longer the shadow is disallowed, the stronger and more ruthless it becomes. Eventually, denial of the dark side becomes unsustainable.

The importance of this is hard to overstate. The experiences of the past, emotional woundings and traumatic episodes in particular, collect in the “long bag” of the unconscious like debts accruing interest. Over time, it becomes increasingly harder to keep dragging that bag behind us. The longer we deny the shadow, the greater our burden becomes, until we are no longer present, because everything in the present becomes a screen for the projection of unfinished business, a trigger, a summons to turn to and tend to the disowned and painful truths of who we have been and who we are that have been exiled to the unconscious. This is why it’s crucial that we begin reaching into the bag of the psyche and “take out again” those parts of our nature that we have rejected—the ‘low,” ugly parts, the mean-spirited and violent and selfish and “imperfect” parts—not because we want to be these things, but because they are primal, and denying what is primal is unsustainable and a formula for catastrophe.

In the Jungian view, the darker forces in the psyche that we are loathe to face in ourselves we project onto others, not only individually but collectively. Demonizing other nations, ethnic or political groups, and religions is the result of projecting the disowned and denied parts of ourselves onto others and regarding them as evil. We see this sort of projection going on even in Congress, where winning at all costs has become the new order, and disagreement is construed as disloyalty. Much of Jungian therapy involves the deconstruction of such projections, allowing the client to reclaim and integrate the shadow, to come to terms with Mr. Hyde so that the monster never needs to rise up and wreak havoc.

The shadow cannot simply be unleashed. At the end of the day, denying the light side of our nature is no more sustainable than denying the dark side. Anyone who is so wounded that he cannot admit his failings, who lies to look good, exploits others, sows discord for personal gain or advantage, and otherwise seeks to aggrandize himself sooner or later is pulled down by the undertow of the shadow and drowns in darkness, as it were. Aristotle tells us that character can be rehabilitated but only to a point. Past that, the soul-sickness of akrasia, or lack of self-control that contradicts good judgment, is terminal. It is a theme enacted in Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’s cautionary tale written around 430 B.C. Believing himself to be above the gods (we might say above the truth), Oedipus unwittingly becomes the agent of his own undoing until he is forced to follow his fate to its tragic end. For the Greeks, humility and hubris are expressions of the light and dark aspects of the human soul, respectively. Plato writes about them as black and white horses that must be reigned in by reason, anticipating Jung somewhat by two millennia. We are now living through a compensatory time in our national and global history; the pendulum of the long denied shadow has swung the other way, expressing itself as a return to populism and a rejection of more democratic values, but behind the scenes, the dialectic continues to operate. When the monster, imprisoned overlong, is set loose on the countryside, chaos and destruction follow. Perhaps when the dark truth of the national psyche, its “hour come round at last” as Yeats puts it, has done enough damage, the pendulum will return more to center, and we will have found a way to make peace with the shadow that lives within us all.

21 April, 2018