Walls and Bridges: Locked Down or Linked Up

Walls and Bridges: Locked Down or Linked Up

At the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019 last Friday, I spoke to our graduating class briefly about walls and bridges. The central idea of the message was that we are all, to an extent, ‘engineering’ our lives through our actions and choices.

At times, we may feel the need to build walls around ourselves, for protection, isolation, privacy, or clarity. Throughout our lives, we learn the ways and means by which to create boundaries between ourselves and others. Where we place those boundaries can be a reflection of personal choice or culture: the notion of personal space or proxemics in cultural studies is well documented (see The Hidden Dimension (1966)by Edward T. Hall). At some point in our lives, the childhood and adolescent ‘I’ might be enlarged to become a ‘we’: through the formation of intimate partnerships and close personal relationships; this is when our social boundaries – our ‘life walls’ – move outwards to accommodate others. In time, children may find a place inside our personal walls. There is a good reason for setting boundaries, either physical or abstract. Good fences make good neighbours is a time-honored principle when we seek to clarify what belongs to us and what does not, where we belong and where we do not.

Bridges, on the other hand, represent a completely different undertaking, whether it is a physical bridge or a metaphorical one. A bridge speaks to the idea of reaching out and taking risks. Bridges embody the spirit of exploration, connection, and communication. A bridge is a tool to overcome or surmount an obstacle that impedes our progress. At times, we may find that we can only go forward if we create a means to go under, over, around, or through the barrier. It is of course, the opposite of a wall. A bridge to another place, another person, another culture, makes a connection that experientially enlarges and enriches our lives. There is always a risk associated with building a bridge. You lose the protective quality of the wall. Bridges often cross challenging, difficult terrain to enter unknown territory. Bridges also work both ways: you can cross over, others can cross back as well. You are inviting the unknown into your space.

At a deeper level, walls speak of self-sufficiency and completeness; we want for nothing; further learning is not necessary, or desirable. Within the walls, you have all that is needed – nothing beyond the wall is of value. Bridges, on the other hand, invoke an exploratory spirit seeking to learn more and expand horizons. In building bridges, our intent is not to be boxed-in. Bridges create new possibilities, but also expose new hazards. We must learn to adapt, overcome, and grow as a result.

As engineers of our own lives, at different times we might find ourselves building walls or bridges. It is important to keep in mind that our fear may cause us to build walls, but our innate drive to learn compels us to build bridges. The poet Robert Frost, writing in the gathering storm clouds of World War One, perhaps best expresses a natural antipathy towards walls:

 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down…

 

From Mending Wall, by Robert Frost (1914).

 

 Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Co.

 

 

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