Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word love here not merely in a personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. (1)
We all have to protect ourselves but the question is how. We all construct walls that we believe are castles, though they slowly turn into prisons, because we can’t wall out pain and sorrow and loss.
I protect myself from the intensity of life by retreating into the inner dimension. There I wait in the world of being for the storm to disperse. In this way, my castle has clear walls. We often take our walls with us and think we’re free, even though we’re clunking around in a suit of armor that makes life burdensome. Armor, no matter how thin or clear, keeps the air from touching the skin. It keeps aliveness from touching the heart. Withdrawal and accommodation, turning away and aiming to please, become plates of armor that can prevent us from living our lives.
For years, I told myself that withdrawing was staying calm and balanced, while accommodating was meeting others with no preferences. But there’s a crucial difference between acquiescing to the demands of others and cooperating with life. Moving through my fears doesn’t mean I have to absorb or placate the demands of others. Facing my pain doesn’t mean I have to withdraw from what comes my way. On the contrary, I need to open the ancient door of my own making and let life kiss me on the forehead.
Ironically, our reflex to keep out what we fear is often too late. When we realize we’re afraid, the fear is already inside us. Mysteriously, feelings move more quickly than the mind’s want to stop them. By the time we try to wall out these feelings, the pain is already poking at us. The worry is already breaking down our clarity. The anger is already stirring up our bottom. And the sadness is already staining our heart.
Putting up walls only walls in what’s ready to pass through us, if we would only let it out. The truth is, the only way out is through. When we resist what’s already moved inside us, we intensify all the difficult feelings by trapping what we resist in our tension.
The only way we can mitigate these feelings is to let the experience of being human move on through. For the most part, walls are useless. It’s meeting the sensations of being alive that cleanses us and shapes us, the way fast currents scour the bottom of a river, making the river stronger.
We need to be porous, so that other life can reach us and fill us. This means we have to learn to neither shut ourselves down nor give ourselves away. Whether we live behind walls of our own making or put down our armor depends on how we close and open. We close when we’re hurt or afraid. And open when pain goes away or we’re held and loved back into life. Closing and opening are both necessary, like inhaling and exhaling. Day by day, we’re called to stay open to the life of feeling, while not letting pain, fear, and worry shut down our heart. When we stop opening our soul to the world, we become burdened.
When closing makes us insular, we tighten and miss the depth in everything. We start to become wall-builders. When fearful, we harden and impose our fear on everything we meet. We start to hammer our armor into place. This is the cost of closing without opening. But when we can open into what feels real and true, especially after great fear or pain, our heart widens like an inlet and we ready ourselves for grace, however it might appear. These rhythms of closing and opening are constant. And staying in relationship to both is a constant struggle in which we’re asked to trust our own experience, while listening to the truth of others.
One day last fall I was working at my desk, deeply immersed and yet aware that I was staying there too long, slipping behind another kind of wall that praises life while removing me from it. Our sweet Lab, Mira was wagging her tail and pushing a toy in my lap. My wife Susan had just come home. I could hear her unpacking some groceries. I thought, It’s time to put down what I’m learning and live it. Always, learn and live. Susan was chopping onions and jazz was drifting upstairs. I’m grateful for those moments in which life pulls me out of my chair. This is why we love.
For the most part, walls are useless. It’s meeting the sensations of being alive that cleanses us and shapes us, the way fast currents scour the bottom of a river, making the river stronger.
Seeds to Water
- In your journal, tell the story of a wall you built and why. If it has come down, describe what led to its fall. If it’s still standing, describe your life behind it and what it would take for you to take it down.
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe which you are better at: closing or opening. How does each serve you? How would you like to better the way you close and open?
(1) “Love takes off the masks…” James Baldwin, from The Sun. Chapel Hill, NC, Issue 454, October 2013.
Excerpted from The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart. Reprinted with permission from Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Shuster.