You have probably heard of the Crab Bucket also known as Crab Mentality or Crab Theory before. But just in case I’ll briefly summarise it:
The Crab Bucket is an analogy to describe that unfortunate aspect of human nature that says ‘If I can’t have it, then neither can you’. Whether it be out of envy, resentment, spite or shame we very often try to sabotage people who we peg as being on the road to success. Now, in an actual bucket of crabs any individual crab is perfectly capable of climbing to their freedom if the other crabs don’t pull them back down. But they invariably do, meaning that no crabs get to escape.
As it is in the crab bucket, so it is in human life.
But I’m not going to get into that today, or at least not directly anyway. See, the Crab Bucket is about external forces that act upon you. It is about the hell that is other people, to use that famous bit of Sartrean bluster. I’m more interested in the internal or how that external pressure becomes internalised. I’m more interested in the wall in the head.
So let’s examine it and if we can’t find a way to knock it down.
Brick by Brick
It’s strange- now that we are some thirty plus years into ‘The End of History’- to think that the Berlin Wall even existed. In many ways it seems as distant as Queen Victoria given how much our world has accelerated since it fell. But fall it did. And an interesting thing happened in the aftermath of the fall of that bricks and mortar manifestation of ideological divide.
Or rather an interesting thing didn’t happen. See, though the Communist East Germans, the GDR, were subsumed into the more affluent, and democratic West many struggled to accept this change. Though the physical wall was gone die Mauer im Kopf- the wall in the head- still exists.
The external wall had been internalised and no mere sledgehammer can break down that barrier. I know the feeling.
With time and distance I see that the problems of my youth and young manhood were not so much to do with the Crab mentality- though I, like many, could reel of a litany of doubt-sewing comments and undermining actions if I had a mind to- as they were to do with The Wall In The Head.
The implied limitations of the world that low-tier mass education fosters, the suspicion of high culture (or even mid-brow culture) and the aesthetic poverty of an often Brutalist landscape were the bricks my wall was built from.
The default assumption around our way was that you probably wouldn’t amount to much. Steady employment and a mortgage were the extent of permissible dreaming, or so it seemed. Even the environment itself conspired to signal this- if everything around you is council estates, concrete, graffiti and streets populated by those who are prematurely aged and chronically ill due to a mixture of stress and lifestyle, then you quickly assume that the high life isn’t on the cards for you.
You accept this like fate. In fact fatalism is, I would say, the primary symptom of someone having a wall planted firmly in their head. As well as being a prison of your own perceived limitations you also become the guard and the warden as well. Always keeping yourself in check via fatalism if the fleeting thought of escape enters. The self-talk is all of a piece: ‘this is just the way things are’ ‘it probably wouldn’t work anyway’, ‘you have to be realistic’
And so on.
The jailbreak from the prison of your own limiting beliefs can take years, and though it goes against the glib Positive Thinking orthodoxy, the truth is that it is not a switch to be flipped. Like a somewhat institutionalised ex-con you can find yourself sinking into the ingrained ‘why bother’ attitude if you are not careful.
You don’t just leap over the wall in a single bound. You have to carve out you escape route with the small tools at your disposal, like Andy Dufresne and his geologists hammer.
And we will get to that in a moment. But first, I feel like I need to give a concrete (boom, tish) example so that you can see what a Wall In The Head might look like.
The Two Sides of The Divide
What we are talking about here is class. Now, affluence and comfort may well have its own accompanying walls, but I couldn’t comment on that. It’s out of my purview.
If we look at those original East Berliners we see that they were poorer and less worldly than their Western counterparts. That’s what the mental wall is all about. It concerns a lack of opportunity, examples of possibility, signals of belief and positive reinforcements.
So let’s take an example. Say we have a child who in some vague and distant way is interested in medicine. There is the distant yearning to be a doctor, perhaps picked up from television. But if the child is from the metaphorical East and lives in public housing and has a low level mass education then this child will be lacking in examples. It is highly unlikely that there are family friends or relatives who are doctors or that there is anyone in their life- whether at home or at school- that can concretely outline the steps to get there.
At best the child might here vague stuff about hard work and needing good grades but nothing tactical- what exactly is best to study? Where to study it? What are the best or most appropriate clinical specialisms to consider? And on and on and on.
The harried and overworked and underpaid teachers in our ‘Eastside’ kids school not only do not have the time or specific knowledge to help the child, they also most likely will not encourage any child to chase any specific dream because they have had their heart broken by an estate kid who showed promise but didn’t deliver as they couldn’t climb over their own personal wall.
Personally, I never once recall their being any talk of reaching my potential in school. Not only was potential not ascertained it wasn’t even spoken of as a concept. No one thought in those terms. School, like life, was just something you got through a day at a time by keeping your head down and enduring. This fear of aiming for something because failing at it could be embarrassing is the cement that holds the bricks together.
The ‘Westside’ kid has no such obstacle. Yes they have to work hard but they are taught that dreams aren’t just for bedtime and that they can be anything they want to be. Successful family members and peers reinforce this- not only in words but through their existence. A Westside kid who wants to pursue medicine can ask their obstetrician uncle about the best way to craft his medical training and the most appropriate hospitals and facilities to train in.
One child is schooled in excellence. The other is not. One child has social capital while the other does not. One child knows that she can be whatever she wants to be providing she has the requisite talent and willingness to work. The other thinks that what she can be is largely predetermined and that attempting to better herself is a waste of time at best and an invitation to perpetual failure, disappointment and ostracism at worst.
Now does that wall appear a little clearer? It can be hard to see beyond its looming shadow for many who have built one for themselves. Walls keep things out as well as in. A wall keeps the world of its builder codified, hemmed in, small, but in a way understandable. It limits ambition but it also limits the need to ever have to try. It keeps everything nice and simple. Things are just the way they are, so why go to the fuss of trying to change them. That’s not how we do things around here. Let them posh people with their fee paying schools worry about all of that.
Demolition and Tools or Escape
I trust you’ll forgive the underlying ‘woe is me’ tone that ran through the above section. The Wall In The Head can be very subtle, so I find you have to lay it on fairly thick as a means of exploring the phenomenon and getting to its root. And incidentally I have never harboured any desire towards being a doctor, so I can assure you the above was merely illustrative rather than a piece of therapy disguised as an essay (even though all writing is ultimately cathartic, I would argue)
Anyway. I should wrap this up.
As I have said in the past in different contexts, knowing is half the battle. More than. Understanding the existence of The Wall In The Head transforms it from a lingering, vague, existential source of anxiety and despair to a mere obstacle. A bloody great big obstacle maybe, but an obstacle nonetheless.
And you can chip away at it- and dig your way out using tools. Beauty is a tool, which is why I talk about aesthetics so much. Literature is a tool, which is why I talk about the importance of reading great novels rather than just low bandwidth non-fiction so much. (Self improvement books at best show you a person standing in the rubble of a destroyed wall, great fiction shows you truthful and resonant depictions of a character struggling to break down the wall, and not always successfully). Cultivating a rich inner life and mental resources and a long attention span and health enough to physically endure the escape are all tools.
I’m always hesitant to give advice because it is all so dependent on context. But if I can offer tools, or at least talk about the possibility of putting together tools to knock down the wall in the head then I can say to myself that I have done a little good. That I have provided a few clues on escape that the young version of myself was scrambling around trying to find.
This is my aim anyway.
Until next time,
The Commonplace is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The level of self-knowledge, awareness and probably most importantly honesty required to write a post like this is huge.
“The self-talk is all of a piece: ‘this is just the way things are’ ‘it probably wouldn’t work anyway’, ‘you have to be realistic’”
I myself came from an upper-middle class background, with two encouraging parents, and yet still internalised all of the above early on, through school, bad teachers, and any other number of things.
I genuinely only feel I’ve overcome it in the last year or two - but it’s still there, only I know how to deal with it now.
I liken it to running - when I ran a marathon recently, before I was fully prepared, the last 13k was hell on Earth. A raging argument between myself and the voice in my head telling me to just pack it in, “no one will care”, “there’s still so far to go” etc.
Somewhat like a mild form of psychosis for an hour or so. You get real familiar with that voice.
But I held onto the feeling - because every time I do something challenging/physically exhausting, I can’t help but think back to that last 13k, and realise that ‘voice’ doesn’t mean a shagging thing.
“This fear of aiming for something because failing at it could be embarrassing is the cement that holds the bricks together.”
Brilliant. Your ability to turn a phrase never ceases to make me smile.
“One child is schooled in excellence. The other is not. One child has social capital while the other does not. One child knows that she can be whatever she wants to be providing she has the requisite talent and willingness to work.”
Something the affluent “Abundance mentality bro” chaps will never understand. Confidence is all they know, and they subsequently attribute the result of a good environment to natural talent.
“Beauty is a tool, which is why I talk about aesthetics so much. Literature is a tool, which is why I talk about the importance of reading great novels rather than just low bandwidth non-fiction so much. (Self improvement books at best show you a person standing in the rubble of a destroyed wall, great fiction shows you truthful and resonant depictions of a character struggling to break down the wall, and not always successfully).”
Interesting link back to the Wall in the Head - I hadn’t connected the two before, but it does make perfect sense. Will be thinking on this a lot more I’m sure.
Excellent post Tom, from the heart this one I’m sure.
This is beautiful! And it's definitely gonna be one of my favourites of yours.
I love how you used the Berlin Wall as a symbol here. It is very symbolic for the 20th century in general but it was a pure pleasure seeing it in the new context. Also for some reason, I thought about Pink Floyd when I read the title for the first time :D
I see many parallels with my own life and with other things in art, storytelling, philosophy, etc. The beauty of this essay is it can be read in multiple ways and every reader can draw their own meanings because everyone has their own walls. Retrospectively, I can see many walls existed in my head but it's hard to identify what still exists or what's new. Some of them I'm aware of and, as you said, once you understand them they become a mere obstacle. I believe it's very true.
I lived in the village most of my life, obviously not knowing about the opportunities I can have. So I agree that literature, art in general (and the internet, for discovery) might help (and definitely helped me) to break, dig under or jump over the walls. If you're curious enough, you can peek and see what's behind the wall. So I believe the main things that can help to come over that obstacle is open-mindedness, curiosity, tolerance to confirmation bias. If the one doesn't have those qualities, breaking the wall would be hard.
The important part of the essay, which I think I didn't pay enough attention to at the first reading is " Walls keep things out as well as in.". What if the wall protects you from monsters? I bet everyone has walls like this, sometimes self-built, often built externally. Maybe we also build walls like when we try to unlearn something.
Another thing is escapism. Do you think the wall in the head has anything to do with it? I don't mean "bad" escapism here (if there is anything like that at all). I mean the urge to get out of the chamber in a positive way. For example, If you are surrounded by the misery that you desire to escape, one of the ways to get out of it can be art, as you mentioned. And your essay 'Beauty In A World Of Brutalism' might be related to it.
Also, I think the walls can lead to cynicism in life. If you're locked in your chamber with labels attached to you, labels you cannot change freely, you become cynical towards new things, maybe even nihilistic, up to at what point when pessimism becomes desolation. You don't believe in new ideas, you don't believe in yourself, you don't believe that others can reach that and you project all of it on your own life and the life of others. Instead of the excitement of the bright future ahead, you end up being a grumpy guy who thinks nothing is possible and endurance is the only way (very Russian mindset by the way). I read in some of Julian Barnes's novels, that young people shouldn't be ironic and cynical about life. It poisons them. It prevents growth and suppresses imagination and curiosity. One should start life in a cheerful state of mind and be optimistic about it. First, you should see enough of it, then you can develop a natural sense of irony with a splash of cynicism towards the world.
The very first essay I was going to publish was called 'Weighing Anchor'. I wanted to write about how I "broke through the wall" with writing. I couldn't finish the draft because I couldn't see the problem clearly. But this essay and the wall metaphor made it all clear for me. As with many of your essays, this one help to break another wall, so maybe I will finish it one day.
And I shall say I enjoy writing comments to your essays as much as reading them. I'm glad it has become my weekly practice.
So, thank you,
Beams of appreciation,