FEBRUARY POST: SOMETHING THERE IS THAT DOESN’T LOVE A WALL

“The Wall! The Wall! Build the wall!” The wall along the Mexico border.

It used to be “Tear down the wall.” The Berlin wall. The Iron Curtain.

The Christian ideal is to tear down walls. Between peoples. Between people. Forgive those who trespass against you. Love your enemy. Take in the stranger who knocks at your door. It’s echoed on our beloved Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor,/ your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

It’s echoed in the poems of America’s signature poet, Walt Whitman. “Undrape. You are not guilty to me!”

We love that ideal so much that in our fantasies we imagine it operating one day even among animals. In a future wall-less utopia, the lion will lie down with the lamb. (Although, as Woody Allen says, the lamb won’t have an easy night’s sleep.)

When my kids were little, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” obviously struck a respondent chord in them. When the song, “We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control,” ended, they’d pick up the needle and put it back at the beginning. Over and over and over again.

Although the refrain of this album is “tear down the wall,” the message of this particular cut seems to be to keep the wall up. “Teachers! Leave those kids alone!” is a roundabout way of saying “Schools! Leave those kids alone!” “Kids. Watch out for what’s going on in schools.”

It gets confusing. Schools are good, aren’t they? Schools are the community centers of our growing up. They bring kids together. The provide an on-going setting in which they get to know each other. They promote learning.

Ah, but what kind of learning? Certainly American tax dollars don’t purchase and maintain that big fleet of yellow busses to haul kids to school and back home day after day, year after year in hopes that they’ll one day read Socrates. The deeper function of schools is social control, to train children into conformity with their nation’s values – to train kids in large social units (larger than the family) to become loyal citizens.

Fine and dandy, depending on the nation one is being trained to be loyal to. The more powerful a nation becomes, the more corrupt. It’s one of our founding fathers’ fundamental principles. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Good citizens should be skeptical about governments, which at any moment could abuse patriotism for corrupt ends.

It’s all but impossible to understand the complexity of walls. Borders. Boundaries. In the words of Robert Frost in “Mending Walls,” “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” But that’s only one side of the argument. The other side is that “good fences make good neighbors.”

In this famous poem of almost century ago, two neighbors are partaking of their yearly spring ritual of mending the stone wall that marks the boundary line between their properties. At one point, the narrator (call him a liberal, a progressive) in a good humored way says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What it was I was walling in or walling out/ And to whom I was likely to give offense.” But the neighbor (call him a conservative) is satisfied with saying that “good fences make good neighbors” and leaving it at that, as if everyone deep down knows that troubles would eventually show up if boundaries between neighbors weren’t clearly defined and respected.

I see the non-narrator as an older guy. He’s at least older in his mindset: he’s “like an old-stone savage armed,” the narrator silently observes. “He will not go behind his father’s saying” (that “good fences make good neighbors”).

Yet it is the younger guy is who has called to his neighbor to remind him that it’s time to do their spring wall-repairing thing, a detail which clearly shows that Frost is not taking sides here; rather presenting both positions as equally compelling, a point he further emphasizes by having both positions precisely stated twice.

Ideally, we don’t like walls. Practically we need them. Most wars are provoked by boundary disputes. A person, a neighbor, that we find difficult to be around we are apt to say has boundary issues.

My family was pretty loving and accepting of neighbors in our 1940’s/1950’s rural farm community, but distances were required. There were criticisms – gentle criticisms, albeit — of this or that, but those criticism stayed within the walls of the home. (I’m sure this worked both ways.) And fences even between the closest of neighbors were the accepted norm — as if clear boundaries were in the nature of human behavior.

Even within the walls of the family home there were walls. My father had many positive qualities, but he had a righteous temper, too, which I feared. Of course a wall is desired between a person and what he fears. It has taken me a lifetime to fully love my father, and that didn’t come to pass until he was dead. Go figure.

Now I love him so dearly that I regret we didn’t tear down that selfsame wall before he died, so that our affection could have been more expressive. We hear this sad thought voiced all the time, after someone has died. “Tell your loved-ones every day how much you love them.”

But it’s not an easy thing, to love someone. To complicate the father/son thing further, in later life I’ve come to understand how a good bit of my own development came through testing my strength against my father’s, required for which was a wall between us. For a long time that wall was simply that he was bigger than I was. He expressed it in precisely those terms, if I dared not do his bidding, even asked the question why.

Not that my father was a tyrant, any more than the typical male head of most families. He simply ran the home. He was bigger than I was in lots of ways.

Lying is another obvious wall that people put between themselves and certain others, and where does lying often get started but within the family. When I was a kid, my sister reported to my mother that I was using the f-word on the bus. My mother confronted me. I denied everything. I remember her saying that now I was really hurting her, because I was lying. I continued with my lie, nonetheless, until she gave up and sent me to my room, where I remember feeling (1) happy that the grilling was over and (2) kind of good that she couldn’t force a confession out of me.

But why would I feel good about boldface lying to my beloved mother. It took me years to figure that out. The lightbulb went on in a college classroom, upon reading Freud’s observation that to psychologically survive, people need to lie, as much as they need to eat to physically survive. My lie to her was a survival response to her lie to me. Her father, her brothers, my dad were all vigorous, worldly men whom she loved deeply. They all used the f-word, if not freely, often enough. Did she want me to grow up to be a pantywaist? No. She did not.

And if walls within even a home are full of complexity, what about the walls within persons, between different parts of ourselves. Here the subject gets almost too complicate to talk about. Let me open that door a crack with this brief confession. I don’t like me all that much. There’s a longstanding inner wall between how I feel about myself and how I wish I felt about myself.

That human beings carry within them, from before they can remember, an inferiority complex is a foundational cornerstone of the thought and work of Alfred Adler, who, along with Freud and Jung, is considered one of the three foremost pioneers in depth psychology. But an open inferiority complex is a contradiction in terms. An inferiority complex is simply impossible to live with. According to Adler, we all build a wall between how we actually feel about ourselves and how we pretend (even to ourselves) to feel about ourselves.

No doubt this compartmentalization within the individual is at the core of the problems people have in getting along with each other, the messiness of human relationships. What can be expected of societies made up of individuals so divided within themselves.

Then, one layer deeper down, we have existential walls, begat of our hidden terrors of being mortal – of being born to die. Again, it is impossible to live openly, consciously with such an unbearable truth. (Here is the origin of religion, some would say.) A wall simply has to go up between our daily life and that knowledge.

Alas, something there is that loves a wall, that wants it up. Only with good inner walls — unless you’re Walt Whitman or something, unless you’re Jesus or something — can you even be a good neighbor to yourself.

Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself. Well and good, but what if we don’t love ourselves very much.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Hersh

    You are familiar with Queen and “The Wall”. You might enjoy “Bohemian Rhapsody” a little more. Very operatic! Fitting of Queen, I’d interject, “You can’t have a wall, without a firm reason, how can you have a reason without a firm wall?”

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