The weary passage of these bars
has made his gaze an empty stare:
as if the bars were all there are
and that behind them nothing’s there.
Strong and supple strides around
and back to their beginning come.
A swirling play of power surrounds
a noble will that stands there numb.
Just at times the curtain parts
quietly inside his eyes.
Along a nerve, awareness darts –
arriving in his heart, it dies.
The Panther, by Rainer Maria Rilke
When you’re at a zoo and you see some dumb person throw something at an animal (usually intended as food or a toy, but sometimes meant to annoy), you think to yourself, “Are the cages and moats and walls supposed to protect us from the animal or the animal from us?” Once in a great while we are shown vivid evidence of the fact that we are indeed in need of protection from a ferocious wild animal (such as one notorious fed-up Siberian tiger), but in general it seems like we do a lot more to endanger those inside the cages.
Now picture a modern upscale home in a modern upscale neighborhood. The community has a gate and the house itself has a gate—and maybe a high wall and some actual iron bars like in zoos of old. It certainly has an elaborate security system, and in a few cases even guards. A new twist on the twisted question of protection comes to mind: Are we protecting the creatures inside all of this security or are we doing them tangible harm?I have seen—or in this case, heard—a home in which a disembodied voice announces warnings in urgent, robotic inflections every time a door, window, or gate is opened or disturbed in any way. “Front door alarm. Front door opened.” “Kitchen window alarm. Kitchen window opened.” With at least four or five housekeepers, nannies, and landscapers around at all times, this voice becomes a familiar friend—or a nerve-wrecking, insanity-promoting, omnipresent specter (think “The Raven” or “Stranger Than Fiction”).
I’ve been in other homes where special arrangements or codes are needed to enter, where there clearly is nowhere to go outside of the walled compound to play or socialize, where you have everything you need inside the gates, or where people are very suspicious of you if you don’t meet the profile of a usual entrant.
What does all of this security do to the residents of these homes, especially to the kids? Do they feel like animals at the zoo, curiosities inside a cage unable to run, climb, or fly like they might in the “wild”? Or are they, like the zoo creatures, legitimately being protected from those of us outside who might want to harm them or take something valuable? Surely it’s not because they’re dangerous—though I sometimes think they might become so down the road due to lack of socialization.
Security follows from fear. My question is this: Are we creating a certain, long-term problem in the form of paranoid, un-socialized children because we fear a possible—though unlikely—short-term problem (robbery or attack)? My personal fear is that normally socialized, “free range” children are becoming an endangered species.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous words on fear have been repeated many times recently in connection to the economic downturn, but maybe we should turn them on the ways in which we think of ourselves in relation to the larger world and our community. Should we fear the people outside our walls, or should our true fear be of fear itself?