Silos & Walls

walls
Photo by Redd Angelo

Not long ago, I was riding in the car with Andrew, my youngest son.  All at once he matter-of-factly proclaimed, “Daddy, I just saw a hawk.” Once I acknowledged his proclamation he followed in his customary manner by asking a question.

“Do hawks hurt people?”

“No,” I responded, “they don’t really bother people at all.”

“Do other birds bother people?” he asked.

“No,” I said, thinking this over a bit.  “Birds are just kind of doing their own thing.”  After a moment I added a caveat, “Well, birds will bother you if you get too close to their house, which is their nest.  They don’t like that.”

The answer satisfied him, and he entered back into his realm of contemplative thumb-sucking.  It satisfied me, too.  That is, until I realized how plainly I had created a metaphor.

Silos

For quite some time now I have been perturbed by silos.  They are everywhere, dotting the entire landscape.  They often seem innocuous and easily escape our notice.  It is quite a marvel how invisible something is when it’s so familiar.

Of course, silos are not native only to my region, but occupy other cities, towns, and constituencies throughout the world.  Silos are constructed over time by people.

Once constructed, they stand stubbornly, allowing little in or out.  Once within a silo, one doesn’t have much of a view.  The walls are sturdy and opaque.  Light and fresh air struggle to reach the occupants inside.

Yet, these occupants so often stand just as stubbornly within the silo’s walls as those walls themselves.  It’s as if there is no recollection of the life and energy offered by the world outside.  Only a death grip on whatever remains within the walls, and the uncertainty of what lies beyond.


But pity they who threaten the silo!


Any threats, of reality or perception, will be met with the wrath of the mama red winged blackbird.  What I didn’t have the heart to tell Andrew at the moment of his innocent questioning, was that some birds would peck your eyes out if they could.

Look Out Below!

I’m pretty sure this is what he was really looking for, but the likelihood he will need to worry about this before his brain development moves further along is slim.  Of course, I will have to tell him someday.

This actually used to be a fairly common concern for me.  Not too long ago I was (and hopefully will be again someday) a runner.  When I first found an interest in distance running, I was living in a small Iowa town that was almost a perfect five miles in running circumference.

Five miles wasn’t quite enough, so I found myself wandering country roads fairly often.  In the late spring and early summer, I often shared these roads with angry mama red-wing blackbirds who wanted to peck my eyes out.

It was fascinating and terrifying.  They had no idea who they were messing with and they didn’t care.  They had one concern as they screeched and swooped toward my flailing form.  “Stay the hell away from my nest!”

I always understood their motives, and how these motives mixed with rational fear brought on by evolutionary biology.  You can see crows, sparrows, and their relatives fending off birds and animals of prey, too.

The mama’s thoughts and actions were always in every way logical and substantiated by evidence.  Silos, on the other hand, fly right in the face of evidence and reason.

No Man’s Island

walls
Photo by Steinar Engeland

People need one another.  Every one of us.  Our ancestors realized this from the very beginning.  This is why we pack ourselves together so tightly.

It’s obvious in cities, but even in towns.  A drive in any direction from my home will take you toward another little town with houses packed neatly next to one another in the middle of nowhere.


What is it, then, that drives us so far apart?  It’s the same two emotions that drove those red-winged mamas straight for my skull: greed and fear.


We are greedy by nature.  We tend to think of greed as a vice, but it’s actually a useful evolutionary trait.  Our bodies are built to survive.

We feel the need to make sure we have enough, to make sure we have more.  This is what makes greed such a tricky prospect.  We feel it so strongly it blinds our ability to think.

When we feel threatened by encroaching forces, and feel like we might lose what we have, our fear ignites.

Walls

Once that fear grabs hold, we mount our defense.  We defend our possessions, our land, our opportunities, and our power.  We build walls.

walls
Photo by Andre Ferreira

We quickly identify who among us is on our team, and we retreat behind our walls together.  Then, we begin our attack.

Together, we rally around all of the things that make the groups on the other side of the walls different.  We find a way to make them “other”.

We call them terrorists, criminals, cheaters, illegals, Muslims, Mexicans.  These words calm our fears.  They convince us we are right and righteous.


We give ourselves completely to our greed and our fear, and we completely fail to see that none of this makes any sense at all.


This path has abandoned all logic and reason.  We have locked rational thought out of our silos and placed it on the other side of our walls.

There is a better way forward—open our eyes and open our ears.  Open our minds to real solutions.  Walls and silos are not the answer.  Retreat is not the answer.  In the recent words of Pope Francis, “All walls fall. All of them. Do not be fooled.”

We need each other.  We learn from each other.  Greed and fear are a part of our biology, but it is our ability to think, to reason, to understand, and to solve that makes us human.

In the Box

box
Photo by Dmitry Ratushi

The following is an essay I wrote for the Mindsoak Project.  Special thanks to my good friend Jon Filitti for the invitation. 


One thing I learned growing up is things are the way they are. It isn’t worth yours or anyone else’s time to try to change that. There is a certain way you act, a certain way you speak, and certain expectations you should have of everyone you meet.

Most of us live in the box. The box is what we know. It brings order from chaos, safety from danger, familiarity to combat the unknown. It is where we belong.

I recently applied for an award that would help me complete my first novel. I didn’t get it. Among the several reasons given by the committee for denying my application, one sticks out. They said they “question the ambitious nature of the project.”

I know exactly what they mean. My idea is too far out of the box. The moment I read that line, I realized just how miserable I have been in the box. It’s stifling. It’s boring. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It is devoid of new ideas.

Photograph via Joe Jansen

 At the same time, it’s comfortable. As a middle-aged, upper-middle class white guy, I fit perfectly in here. If I play by the rules and follow the pack, I will live and die comfortably. I won’t ruffle any feathers or rock any boats. Everyone will comment about how well I have lived my life.

 

For most people, I can see how this is a perfectly acceptable situation. After all, it pushes against our human nature to seek out discomfort. If the box is working for us, why climb out?

That is exactly the point that makes me so uncomfortable about the box. We fail to see when it is not working. We think everything is just fine and blind ourselves to the ways the box is horribly broken.


We hold on to the way things have always been for far too long, hoping against logic that things will stay just as they are “supposed to be”.


When we do sense that something is wrong, our first reaction is actually to retreat further into the box. We search for the path that will keep us moving in the direction we thought we were supposed to be going. Surely, we just need to work harder at our jobs, pray harder…do what we have been told. We have to trust the box.

The thing is, I’m just not buying it anymore. As the years have passed, I have spent more and more time looking outside of these comfortable confines for better answers. Inside the box, we treat societal challenges as perpetual neighbors. We will always have poverty, always have war, always have those who receive a top-rate education and those who don’t. It is simply the way things are.

Photograph via Paul Gilmore

Inside the box, this line of thinking is perfectly reasonable. Outside of the box, it is completely ridiculous. Outside of the box, we can separate ourselves from the crowds and the noise that keep us from envisioning what is possible. We can see what could be. We don’t just see problems, we see solutions.

What would the world be like if more of us spent time climbing those walls and freeing ourselves from what is? Could we find new ways forward? Could we change our world for the better? I think we absolutely would.

As this New Year begins, I know exactly where I plan to stand, and I’m taking my ambitious projects with me.