Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Wall


In commenting on humanity’s leanings towards exclusivity, the poet John Ciardi wrote, “Everyone in my tribe hates everyone in your tribe.” He apparently wanted to convey the idea that we group ourselves into clans of various sorts and try to keep outsiders out. Love lives in the clan, but will not go beyond it. In fact, often clans deny the humanity of those outside them.

I saw that tendency in primitive people groups while spending time with ethnographic documentaries at Berkeley. In one film, an anthropologist asked the chief of a remote tribe if he could himself participate in a tribal ceremony. The response was, “No, you are not a human being.” You see, the name of the tribe translated as “human being.” There was no way at all for an outsider to become an insider. Of course, we have seen this mindset play out in more “civilized” societies as well. It is as if we build walls to keep those who belong in IN and those who don’t OUT.

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” is about the phenomenon. I have heard people use a quotation from the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors,” as if Frost was arguing for good fences or walls. However, the poem argues just the opposite—good fences do not make good neighbors and before one builds a wall, the poet points out that he or she must consider what is being walled in or out.

“Mending Wall” is a dialogue between an apple orchardist (the narrator) and a neighbor who owns a pine forest. Every spring Mr. Pine insists that the two property owners walk the line to repair the rock wall that separates their acreage. Mr. Orchard does not see why they need a wall, seeing that neither has animals to keep in or out, and he says so. Mr. Pine, though, repeats what his father always said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost says with a wink of irony that Mr. Pine likes having thought of it so well. Actually he has not thought deeply about it at all. The poet contends that Mr. Pine will not go behind his father’s saying. That is, he will not evaluate the old saying in the light of contemporary circumstances.

Accepting old adages or aphorisms too readily without thinking through them is a problem in our day. For example, I have heard people say of a vacuous-minded acquaintance that still water runs deep. Really though, he is quiet because there is nothing going on in his head to draw from. Besides, even the saying is inaccurate, because still water does not run at all—it is still.

So, we must go behind our fathers’ sayings. We should not accept slogans or sayings too easily, no matter how longstanding. The kind of help mankind needs right now is the kind that acknowledges the commonality of our hearts. Fully aware that there is hate in our world that threatens us on every level, we cannot forget the power of love, the kind that casts out fear.

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