Friday, April 15, 2016

The other side of the wall

Polar bears are not really white. Their skin is actually closer to black. And their fur has no pigment at all; its white appearance is due to light refraction. Polar bear hide has evolved to function as a solar collector: the individual hair fibers are clear and hollow, and act like fiber optic tubes that trap sunlight and channel warmth to the bear’s heat-absorbing skin. When polar bears are forced to live in zoos south of their arctic habitats, algae begins to grow in their hollow hair, and their pelt takes on a decidedly non-aesthetic yellowish brown color. During peak visitor season, zookeepers have been known to spray the bears with bleach because nobody wants to see a less-than-white polar bear.

I have compared our civilized situation to that of confined animals on display in a strange sort of zoo where we act as both captive and keeper. Like the discolored captive polar bear, we are forced to accommodate an unnatural habitat and are disfigured by the mismatch. And like the bear, our keepers—that is, you and I—resort to superficial methods for concealing the resulting ugliness. But the ugliness is just a symptom, of course. The real problem, for us and for the bear, is captivity.

But the zoo metaphor makes for a too rough analogy. For one thing, our enclosures are not limited to concrete walls and iron bars. Our enclosures are not mere physical structures designed to confine us to a circumscribed physical place. Instead they penetrate the very tissue of our thoughts and provide the psychological structure that frames our experience. Our enclosures appear absolute; there is no outside. Also, because we are ultimately our own keepers, our self-confinement needs continuous, moment by moment renewal. This is accomplished through a steady diet of anxiety and fear. Fear serves as an ever-present reminder to keep to our assigned place in the bureaucratic order, and anxiety becomes our mantra of impotence.

Both the fear and the anxiety are of our own design—we hold the keys to our cage. All we have to do is open the door and walk through. But first we have to find the door. And before we can do that we have to know that a door is possible, we have to recognize that there is a world outside after all.

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