PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Walls

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

Walls

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.