With the current refugees crisis in Europe, the wall-building trend is on again.
Living behind a wall is something former USSR citizens like me know about. There was that all-pervading feeling of being on one side of the barricade, always aware of the presence of the ‘bad other’ –as we were told- on the other. The less we knew about those who were hidden from our views by the wall, the more they seemed dangerous, thus becoming a perfect enemy. We all feared for our security in case of a breach in that wall.
The wall concept in itself is neither bad nor good; it is a basic human attempt to keep safe. We all use walls to protect our individual space and feel protected, for example at home.
Personal boundaries are something I often explore with my online psychotherapy clients. They are our individual wall, the invisible separation between oneself and the other.
Ironically, the edge of this dividing wall is also the only place where two individuals can ever meet each other. The Gestalt psychotherapy tradition calls it the ‘contact boundary’. The way we organize it impacts all our relationships, and ultimately our life. We are all, some way or another, balancing on the top edge of this wall, like experienced ropedancers. We are not always conscious of this tightrope-walking act of negotiating our boundaries, but the relational dancing is always on.
A really wise client once shared with me, in the middle of a dialogue, Robert Frost’s beautiful poem, “Mending Wall”. Describing the simple action of repairing a partition between two adjacent gardens, it conveys the human conflict between the need for contact and the necessity of a separation.
“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.”
“What does your individual protective wall look like?” – I often ask my clients.
Some imagine a solid stonewall, others see a transparent wall made of glass, or a green fence, and some just perceive a slim cardboard partition. But the difficulty is to find the right amount of openings in this shielding.
I did get from a few clients completely impermeable walls, not letting anything in or out. There is always a risk that a too safe place turns into a prison, the wall-owner ending up isolated.
I also saw wobbly boundaries, full of cracks, endangering their owner.
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.
Mending that wall by either making more openings in it or, on the contrary, by consolidating its foundation, then becomes one of the therapeutic tasks.
One of my clients, let’s call her Evelyn, was made of walls. The image of a castle from the Middle Ages came to my mind when she sat upright and steady in front of me. Nothing could penetrate her walls, she was perfectly defended from any potential intruder… but strikingly unhappy. To make sense of her defense, and then to destroy her wall and reconstruct it differently, became the focus of our work. Her new wall was also solid, but with some little openings.
Openings in the wall do not just mean a risk of intrusion; they also are the possibility of a human contact. Think about Leonard Cohen’s song:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Any crisis can divide people but also bring them closer. Crisis are an opportunity to ‘let some light get in’.
Gaining clarity about our own individual boundaries might help us reflect in a more responsible way about bigger walls, those around our towns, or countries. Collective borders are like a sum of individual boundaries. What we wall-in or wall-out is a question of personal choice, as Frost’s poem suggests further:
“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 offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
What if we listened to this part of us that does not like walls and needs openness as a necessary way in for human contact?
This requires vulnerability, a personal strength that is too close to the frightening feeling of shame, which tempts us to keep the others, migrants or unknown, at arm’s length.