Sunday, September 6, 2009

Walls and Bridges

Castles became very fascinating to me at a young age. One night while I was a boy, I remember my Dad showing me a scrap book of sorts that he had kept. We sat on a couch together in our living room next to a table lamp. I held the book as he turned the pages under the light. The album contained post cards and pictures with deckled edges of places that he and my Mom had visited while they lived in Germany, not long after World War II. His service in the U.S. Army afforded them an opportunity to travel on occasion while they were there.

I remember looking at the pictures of castles such as the Neuschwanstein Castle or the Hohenzollern Castle. I was intrigued by the walls, gates, buttresses, turrets, towers, and crenellated battlements which were romanticized in the castles that came after the late 18th Century. As a boy, I knew none of these names or terms, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated by them.

I later became interested in older castles that were used more for defending a kingdom. These castles inspired many hours of play as I thought about kings, knights, damsels, and dragons. Their architecture included moats, portcullises, draw bridges, and places to shoot arrows. The large curtain walls that surrounded the keep seemed massive and impenetrable. They were symbols of strength and protection.

Another type of structure that captured my imagination was bridges. Some fascinating examples were built during the Roman Empire such as the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome and the Alcántara Bridge in Spain. The Roman’s skill allowed for both traffic and aqueducts that transported water. While some were smaller in size, many spanned great depths and distances. However, these constructions served an opposite purpose to the medieval wall. Rather than trying to keep things out, their purpose was to allow passage through.

Whether it be walls or bridges, these aged structures were both made of carefully cut stone that would require hundreds of masons to assemble. Each required vast amounts of time, energy, and resources. Because of the skill that was employed in their design and construction, many are still standing after several centuries or more.

Walls and bridges have supplied countless metaphor with symbols of strength that we can all relate to. Perhaps this is because they are both familiar to human nature. Our needs are not so very different. There are times in which we want to be connected to or removed from our environment. There are people we want to associate with, and there are others we may prefer to keep at a distance. To accomplish this, I believe we engage in the process of building walls and bridges every day.

Not so reliable as the walls that have lasted for hundreds of years are those portrayed by Robert Frost in his poem, Mending Wall. He describes the annual event of repairing a small wall that is shared by his neighbor. While walls do have their useful purposes, Robert Frost understood the forces that work against them when he said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” This may suggest that there are natural forces, and those beyond nature, that are apt to tear down certain walls. If we are in the business of building walls, or bridges, it is good to know what we are up against.

Inherently, I don’t believe that walls and bridges are necessarily good or bad. They simply are what they are – devices for our use. Whether we build something that we intend to last for many years, or something that we know we will have to mend annually, I feel it is important to acknowledge the reasons why we build what we build. Occasionally we may be building a wall when we would be happier building a bridge, and vice versa.

So why do we build walls? There are some things in life that are so valuable to us that we would go to any length or cost to defend them. These might be experiences we treasure, relationships we desire, or possessions that have taken great effort to obtain. They might be values, causes, or even covenants. The process of protecting the things we value can sometimes be as satisfying as admiring those same things.

If our desires are more focused on protecting the things we value than the value of the things themselves, we might miss opportunities to be happier. We might build a wall to prevent someone from being a part of our life, when sharing would actually be more beneficial. We may miss opportunities for growth and diversity. In this frame of mind – of guarding our treasure – we may also protect things that don’t need protecting. We may hoard things that were meant to be shared. Some of those things may even spoil. You might debate whether a bird of the wild is more attractive in flight or in a cage. I’ll let you defend your own reasons. I think there are places where both may be appropriate.

Similar to walls, we might ask ourselves why we build bridges. There are some things in life that are hard to reach without making a connection – things that are so attractive to us that we would go to any length or cost to reach them. Usually, reaching them singularly is not enough. If we find happiness once, we are inclined to seek it again and again, thus the need for a more lasting connection. As with our present treasure, it may be experiences, relationships, or possessions that we wish to obtain.

With this desire comes a related danger. If we are more focused on the object of our desire than our own well being, we may find ourselves building bridges that ultimately restrict our happiness. Some individuals choose to connect with a certain drug because of the positive effects they think they will enjoy, only to find that their new found bridge is an addiction that lasts far longer than they intended. The connection is greater than the personal strength they possess. Sadly enough, most addictions fit this description.

Not all such addictions or connections are illegal. There are many who become workaholics as a means of satisfaction. This fulfillment from work takes the place of other relationships that could have longer lasting benefits, especially those that are meant to be eternal. In this case, we build bridges where we ought to have strengthened our walls. Bridges often allow for two-way traffic to traverse. We may leave the safety of our walls and enable other influences to enter the places we once protected so carefully. I believe these bridges apply to anything we share, and with anyone with whom we may share.

Perhaps it is not so important whether we are building a bridge or a wall, as long as we are deliberate in doing so for the right reasons. We should be conscientious about what our end desires are, and if they truly are compatible with the happiness we are seeking. Happiness now in exchange for sorrow later is either irresponsible or an ignorant behavior for one who truly wishes to be happy. We should be certain that our map matches our destination before we travel, not after.

For me, marriage is one of those connections I wish to make permanent. My family is more valuable than anything else I own. Yet I am constantly faced with decisions that may compromise the safety of my treasure. There are many good things that can be distractions if not kept in a proper perspective.

If I am sincere in my declaration, then I must do anything and everything to be deliberate for the right reasons. I build strong bridges that connect me with my wife and children. I defend my keep with walls of protection. From that point, I must maintain that which I have built, using caution as I continue to build both walls and bridges.

As alluded to in Robert Frost’s poem, there are forces beyond nature that play in our lives. Sometimes those forces enable walls to come down. I have found that there are greater forces that can also repair walls and add strength to the things we have built. The greatest strength I have found comes from God. When I do the right things for the right reasons, He strengthens my walls and fortifies my bridges, both. When I keep my greatest treasure in proper perspective, He helps me build additional walls and bridges appropriately.

I have learned, more and more each day, to trust the Master Builder. Like my Dad, Father in Heaven will sit with me and turn the pages as I hold the book under His light.

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