The fourth wall
As I was driving to work one morning, I realized with a jolt that I was waking from auto-pilot. Steering right on Embarcadero, left on Greer – entirely mechanical.
I remember zoning out a lot in high school, i.e. going mentally numb, looking into space, halting emotional response. For some reason, I don’t feel myself going blank as habitually now. Sitting behind the wheel, though, coming back to my senses after potentially endangering other drivers and pedestrians, I wondered: as we wake up each morning, how much do we check our awareness at the door and proceed with the day per usual?
Victor, a friend who dabbles in drama, recently brought up the playwright Bertolt Brecht and his relationship with the fourth wall. In the physical structure of a theatre, which includes a back wall and two side walls, the “fourth wall” is that separating the audience from the actors – the invisible one through which we watch. But this was not Brecht’s favorite wall; he saw it as enabling viewers’ apathy and non-response as they sat behind it. Many of his plays were thus characterized by a breakdown of this wall as actors engaged with audience (offensively, it seems).
I can’t help but think that we often live behind our own fourth wall. We can let ourselves go along with actions and events that hold their own momentum. Stanford, for example, had sweeping momentum and didn’t require much introspection at all. I now have several friends feeling the ironically strong effects of Stanford’s fading hold, such as the challenge of free time that few of us learned how to handle while in school. We were mostly busy learning how to handle constant productivity.
A first job can also have momentum. I feel this every time someone asks me if I would continue working where I intern, were I ultimately offered a job. Ignoring certain large assumptions (like a. I’m actually doing well, or b. they have the budget for a new hire, or c. they have the budget and would use it on me), logistically speaking, the no-brainer answer is Yes. Right? Because I’ve already filled out so much paperwork, already come to work every day, and wouldn’t have to suffer a bump in the income-earning thing? Following that kind of logic, anyone could watch themselves flow effortlessly from an internship to a job no matter where it was.
And a first date can have enormous momentum. I was reminded just how much, in the aftermath of a particular dinner I went to several weekends ago. There seems to be an almost formulaic ease to dating, so I can see how companionship-craving individuals might execute it to a tee. And many people do. If the deepest questions of common fundamentals or faith never came about, well, maybe we could all be casual daters. Relationships would just run on their own engines. “Why are we together?” might never “just come up.”
This is not a call to constant reflection or analysis on why we’re doing what we’re doing; I’m aware that self-awareness can curse us. Nevertheless, I’m scared by that fourth wall that blocks us from ourselves. As that wall gets higher and thicker, we might go with a worldly flow forever. Thank goodness for the kinds of friends and family who ask us the hard questions. I believe that questions, embedded in honest conversation, can crack the hardest fourth walls we build.