essays on suffering and awakening

What walls are we each building?

With no end in sight to the ongoing government shutdown over the proposed border wall, I find myself asking: what walls are we trying to build inside ourselves?

It’s a question we could all benefit from considering. The president’s wall evokes visceral opposition from many of us because we understand the folly inherent in putting a dividing line on the map and saying: you can be here but you can’t. Why? On a gut level, we know that reality doesn’t work like that. The border will never be solid, and a lot of people will get hurt as our government tries to pretend otherwise.

Standing at a distance, it’s easy to see that. But I think we could benefit by turning some of our attention closer to home, and considering: what walls are we each putting up?

Me? I build a wall every day. I walk through my neighborhood and feel resentment towards my wealthier neighbors, imagining that I am separate from their seemingly banal, comfortable lives. I judge my family, my friends, the folks I see on social media. I try desperately to feel different, individual, unique, whole, to be who I think I’m supposed to be, and then condemn myself for not being enough. I see myself slipping and hold on tight. I see wrong and feel the thunder of righteousness building inside me as I strive to forget that I, too hold good and bad; that my integrity contains ambiguity. My mind spins and my skin crawls.

I crave stability, constancy, a place to stand forever. I want to be something concrete, and in doing so, forget to be. My wall stands tall and inside I shiver.

If the president’s wall is absurd—and it is—what does that make mine? If I hold him responsible for harming the community—and he does—what then, is my responsibility? Surely the same as I would ask of him: to stand down and put his energy towards helping in the present rather than building a mausoleum to the past.

I know that most of us want to hold onto ourselves. It’s instinct. But I wonder: does it ever work? The answer, I think, is no. The idea that there is anything that can be protected is the illusion—we finish building the castle only to find that the enemy has already taken up residence and is boiling spaghetti in the kitchen. We should love ourselves, certainly, but with the lightness of touch that comes from knowing that every last piece of that self will eventually change.

Scary as it is, it’s a lot less effort to just make room for the new. It can’t hurt us—it is us. If we can trust that, we can loosen our grip, laugh about it, breathe, lay down our bricks. We can be the waves crashing on the sand, forever changing in eternal rhythm.

Ian Cooper