Building is what we do during all those years before we stop working full-time. We build a family, a home life, a social network, perhaps businesses, perhaps wealth, and some sort of legacy, preferably one we are happy to leave behind when we head to the great beyond.
We also build walls. Emotional walls. They are barriers of self-protection against adversity and pain. Defensive levees. Ramparts. They are also containers. We contain and stow difficult issues and people. It’s simpler. We can get on with things.
Seth Godin recently talked about it in terms of shunning (great word). He wrote that we often shun “the people who have transgressed against cultural norms… people who have stood with those people… people who have a different solution to an urgent problem… people who didn’t invite you… people who aren’t shunning the right people… who have slighted you… who didn’t realize that they should be shunning those you’re shunning…”
After that, says Godin, there’s not much left.
I suspect that many of us arrive at the final third of life with a good deal of shunning going on and a lot of walls built and well fortified. I have more than a few. I call them “experience” or “judgement” or “we just don’t see eye to eye.”
I also suspect that at this time of life, shunning and walls, while habitual, are probably not good for us or the rest of the world. Prejudice is a wall. Intolerance is a wall. Impatience is a wall. Long-held judgements with no recourse are a wall.
They might feel comforting. But they are isolating. They keep us from opening to new experiences and relationships, at a time of life when we have time for those meaningful fulfilments. Walls in sufficient number can cause us to end up as grouchy older people, walled into our reclining chairs, quite alone and quite miserable in our loneliness, our gifts to the world held inside the walls, the gifts of the world held at bay outside the walls.
The Fuck-You Wall
In marital relationships, walls can be disastrous. And they are so common. In an argument, to decide to cut off the other person and present a cold exterior is known as “stonewalling.” It’s a fuck-you tactic. Men do it more than women. Rather than work through the problem, stonewallers abruptly pull out of the game and hope that the problem dies on its own. It seldom does. It usually goes underground (perhaps trying to burrow beneath the wall).
Stonewalling is often mistaken, by men, as being manly. It’s a tough-guy thing. But really, it’s weak. It’s a sort of cheat. We cheat the other person out of the chance for a peaceful accord. We cheat ourselves out of learning the valuable skill of reaching an accord. We also cheat ourselves out of intimacy. Intimacy depends on showing our vulnerabilities. Living without intimacy is a poverty.
Hardening vs. Softening
Walls make us harder. The choice, as we age, is to become harder and more unyielding or softer and more relaxed. A friend send me a note the other day about what he sees as our general propensity as a species for rigidity as the decades go on. He says we tend to become less and less tolerant of things outside our comfort range: temperatures, how things are cooked, people’s characters, and a growing litany of other inconsequential intolerances. His words: “As people grow old/retire they need to learn how to kick back a little more, and learn to be accepting of a wider range of living, to enjoy the variety and randomness of things that happen to them, and not to get trapped into expecting everything be ‘exactly so.’ I’ve got few friends, including my wife, who are turning into curmudgeons unless their world precisely meets their 'standards’.”
Are there are good walls?
Some walls are prudent. For example, I am clear on my need to wall out habitual liars, cheaters, and incurably pretentious people. I know that’s a shortcoming in one way. But with the time I have left, I don’t feel that I can waste it trying to relate to people I cannot trust. For me, those are pretty solid walls — unless, as I grow, I see a more charitable path.
I have also come to respect and utilize “boundaries,” a word so overused these days that it sounds a little mushy. The idea is to avoid mushy boundaries, to establish them and keep them, albeit compassionately. Persistently difficult relationships that are nevertheless worth having are in need of boundaries, so they don’t become regrettably more difficult and perhaps irreparably divisive. Boundaries aren’t exactly walls. Think of them like international borders where identities are well-defined but free trade and congeniality are possible, unless hostilities mount.
The most dispensable walls are the small, cold, fast ones — the easy snub, the frosty glaze, the reactionary rebuff. Snobbery. Arrogance. Conceit. Those are walls that we can all stop erecting. We just have to decide to call them what they are — casual cruelties — and abolish them in ourselves.
I, for one, will keep trying to resist wall-building of all but the prudent kind, with the intent of becoming a gentler, more open, less quick-to-judge older man, and not the steaming curmudgeon in the recliner.