Building Our Walls

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…”

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

         With all the talk about walls these days, I’m reflecting once more on the words of Frost’s poem. The current discussion, of course, is focused on the physical wall, the cost, the construction and so forth, but in the spirit of deeper inquiry, Frost’s, poem invites us to take a much deeper look at what truly constructs whatever walls we build and to question how it begins with ourself.

         In fact, much of our activity in life is devoted to constructing and trying to maintain an imagined separation between the way we think our life should be and our life as it is.   We erect walls placing ourselves on one side and the rest of the world on the other. This boundary serves as a sort of control between all that we believe threatening or would rather not acknowledge in the outside world and all that we believe safe in our self-contained inner territory. From behind the wall, we believe we have a firm, safe  grip on life. 

         For each of us, our wall looks different, but any boundary only serves our misguided  belief that we are lords of our own territory, that we can be separate, that we can control life by walling out whatever appears threatening or painful and walling  in comfort and security.  Our walls take many forms. We may try to live our life behind the fence of complete independence, never asking for help from others, even when we need it.   Perhaps most of our mental activity is spent planning ahead  or worrying,  keeping  the unexpected at bay by imagining ourselves one step ahead of competition in our job, our child’s future,  our retirement, our partner’s next move.  We may avoid showing anger or hurt, walling out our feelings from others and perhaps from ourselves.  Taking the victim stance, we hold in the past and wall out forgiveness.  Holding fast to righteous views, maintaining rigid positions, judging others as well as ourselves,  we deny the frailty and fallibility of the human condition.  Regardless of its outward appearance, the function of the wall is separation. As long as we believe, with the farmer in Robert Frost’s poem, that “good fences make good neighbors,” we’ll never really know our neighbors or ourselves. We’ll never know freedom. But luckily, no matter how hard we try to keep our walls erected, there’s “Something that doesn’t love a wall,” that sends them toppling.  The wall of righteous perfection is toppled by a simple error, showing us less than perfect.  Holding fast to our opinions about the way  we believe events should go turns into sulking or perhaps rage when someone disagrees with us or does things differently.  A life-threatening illness shatters our meticulous planning for the future.  Life will not let us stay hidden behind our walls. It will topple them over and over, and each time this happens, our defenses, our separation,  our sense of inner and outer falls with them. If only for a moment, we have the opportunity to see our life as it is. 

         The opportunity life offers us is to turn and face the open gap left by the fallen boulders.  Rather than quickly looking for something to fill the hole, we can allow ourselves a little time to be in that open, seemingly very vulnerable place.  For a few seconds, minutes or whatever, just awareness. Just hurt, terror, grief, rage. Just clenched teeth, contracted belly, heavy chest.  We cannot topple the wall;  the events of life do that for us.  But we can decide that we will live a life in which we come to know the boulders with which we construct our barriers and to allow ourselves, over and over, to witness the gaps. Slowly, we become intimate with every rock, every pebble and with time, we come to understand that our lives are the boulders and the gaps, that there is no-thing to wall in or out.