I am not British, nor do I live in the UK. And yet, I feel compelled to write this post.
I consider myself European. As it has been for many immigrants from Eastern Europe, leaving my walled off country made my personal world broader and wider. The experience of immigration made me the person I am now. This salutary change of perspective is now at risk, or at least under scrutiny.
Last Friday my world became slightly narrower and I feel as if I had lost a friend to some ugly and sudden illness.
The country that I cherished for its culture, its humor, its cultural curiosity, its courage and its ability to be open towards the different, has chosen isolation by democratic vote. In a desperate attempt to rationalize this decision, I remind myself that Britain is an island after all. I lived on an island myself, a tiny one, lost in the watery space between Britain and France, and I remember how it feels to be an islander. There is a bitter sweetness in the way we curl up into our loneliness, separated by endless water from the rest of the world, the continent. I experienced this myself on wintery days, when my tiny rock, tortured by wind, was occasionally cut off from the mainland by fog.
As days went by, the feeling of isolation usually grows, and life on the island settled into a comatose blankness. A lack of color, perspective, or foreign voices would take away stimulation, plunging the islanders into sleep.
As a psychotherapist, I also know that withdrawal at times of emotional distress is a dangerous exercise for an individual. The same is true for a nation, which is an entity composed of individuals.
Robert Frost, a child of Scottish and English immigrants, born in America, comes to my mind. His poem “Mending wall” describes the simple action of repairing a partition between two adjacent gardens, conveying the human conflict between the need for contact and the necessity of a separation. This inner conflict is something every human struggles with, and in the attempt to resolve this conflict our relationships evolve. This seems to be the main struggle for Britain in these gloomy post-referendum days.
“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…”
Right now our British neighbors have decided that "Good fences make good neighbors."
But in my immigrant’s heart “Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” This sentiment has been echoed by many emigrants I work with in my psychotherapy practice. And I can only hope that the British people will get back in touch with the precious, inclusive and generous part of themselves.
With any newly built wall, there will be people who simply turn away from the obstacle and withdraw. But there will also be others who will seek to surmount the wall and get closer to the other, with courage and curiosity. The emigrants I know are of the latter kind. Overcoming the walls is a typical emigrant’s endeavor, after all. It’s not surprising that psychoanalysis was created by emigrants as one of the deepest aims of therapy is renegotiating personal boundaries, breaking down walls, building new fences.
“What does your individual protective wall look like?” – I often ask my clients in therapy.
Some imagine a solid wall of stone, others see a transparent wall made of glass, or a green fence, and some just perceive a slim cardboard partition. But the challenge is to find the right degree of permeability in this barrier.
When we feel under attack, we may create a completely impenetrable wall, letting nothing in nor out. There is always a risk that a too-safe place may turn into a prison, isolating the wall-owner. On the other hand, wobbly boundaries, full of cracks, may endanger their owners.
Both extremes are potentially unhealthy, as they leave the person with a feeling of anxiety in relation to the outside world and to the other.
What the newly arisen wall between Britain and Europe will look like seems to me the biggest question of this post-Brexit time. Specifying the size and nature of the openings can become a noble task if undertaken mindfully, with some sense of respect and compassion for one’s neighbor.