“Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization. We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.”
― Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations
Of the books that have influenced me the most, I’d say Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” is one, and “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton is another, the latter because it instilled a love of reading in me as a maturing teenager. The former because it’s the most accurate picture of our age. The reason Lasch’s book struck a chord with me so much is that it perfectly encapsulates the time we live in – the pervasiveness of media, technology, and distractions, as well as the decline of personal agency, adulthood, and the rise in social isolation that has come with the disappearance of communal life.
There’s been a lot of controversy in the news lately about immigration. This blog is not the place to argue for or against a wall on the border of Mexico. I’ll leave that up to the pundits and politicians. What I will do though, is make an impassioned case for more walls, not less. Let me explain.
For anything significant to happen, or anything worth loving to exist in the first place requires walls. We all need a place to sleep at night, and a place to call home. For any life worth living to be lived, any class worth teaching to be taught, any business worth running to be started, family worth having formed, city worth living in lived in, or any nation worth fighting for and loving, requires a wall. Tearing down all walls makes it impossible to build any community.
It’s easy to tear something down, to criticize, to alienate, and to obliterate. It’s much easier to destroy than it is to build. It’s much harder to build walls worth building, than it is to take them apart blow by blow. It takes blood, sweat, toil, courage, tears, and effort to build walls, and it takes an appreciation for the sacrifices of the past to keep walls up that need to stay up. If you conducted a survey of the younger generations of Americans and asked them what it means to be a citizen, what do you think they would say? Would they even understand what the word meant? Citizen?
The idea of a city-state, which inferred citizenship, goes back to ancient Greece, but this cherished idea of citizenship came primarily with responsibilities, as well as rights. Most Americans have no idea what it means to be a contributing member, a “citizen” of something bigger than themselves. Most modern people don’t see themselves as an active and participating member of a continuing covenant, with commitments to the past and to the future, and that’s a tragedy. There are many different types of these walls of community and citizenship – literal or metaphorical- walls of instruction in becoming an expert, walls of moral formation, walls of worship, walls of familial, walls of tribal gatherings, and walls of communal belonging, and they are falling all around us, and I’m not of the opinion that’s a good thing.
We need more walls. Not necessarily walls with armed guards and barbed wire, but what we need is walls of meaning. The effort to tear down and obliterate all walls of meaningful identity- family, neighborhood, ancestry, sexuality, trade, tribe, clan, religious- has taken on almost demonic energy and momentum. Tearing down all walls is an act of de-creation and an assault on healthy living. Walls build agency. Walls build expertise. Walls build belonging. Walls tell us who we are, and thus who they are. Walls represent diversity that is truly beautiful because they allow for human growth, communal life, and for achievement and distinction. Without distinction there is no joy, no erotic love, no difference, and no admiration, there is no life.
To some, a wall represents isolation, but to others walls represent belonging. Again, I’m not advocating anything political necessarily. I’ve been to the Berlin Wall, and I know first-hand how dangerous walls can be. But what I am saying is that the “Empire of Nothing” as I’ve heard it called, pushed on by a faceless global consumerism, is equally as dangerous. It kills the soul and spirit. Should we be surprised when suicide skyrockets, and mass shootings, and nihilistic terrorism happen on a seemingly daily basis? Only in relation to each other, and with each other, in grounded walls of situated and permanent cooperation and belonging can we reform what needs reforming, and create any kind of healthy and meaningful future. Only within walls can we as individuals, craving health and meaning, have hope of survival.
Only within walls can we make a home in the world.
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