Today I took a trip with some family and friends to a fortress in the area where I live for a birthday trip. As a military historian, one of my major interests is fortification. As is often the case in my life, my interests have symbolic importance, and being an experienced wall builder around my own heart, I am always intrigued in matters of fortification of a literal or figurative matter. Fortresses are unusual in many ways that people often do not reflect on, and at times fortresses can be a lot more trouble than they are worth . That said, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore the matter of literal fortresses and examine some of the implications of being a wall builder around a tender and vulnerable and wounded heart.
Fortresses are made of a lot of materials. In the course of my own travels as a fan of fortresses, I have seen fortresses made of a wide variety of materials. Some fortresses, like Fort Vancouver (which I visited today) are made of wood. Other fortresses, like Fort Sumter in Charleson or Fort Pulaski in Savannah, are made of beautiful and elegant brickwork. Other fortresses, like Fort Fisher outside of of Wilmington, are made of earthen walls. Some fortresses are designed to protect from threats in the sea, some fortresses are designed to protect from threats on land, and some are built as nominal protection in the absence of any real threat but simply with an eye towards protecting something worth guarding and preserving safely, like a wealthy and strategic trading post, for example.
The same is true with regards to our own personal feelings and belief systems. We build fortresses around our minds and hearts because we live in a dangerous and threatening world, and because our hearts and minds and reputations are worth protecting. So are those who are vulnerable because of disability or the innocence that comes from youth. Such innocence is worthy of being protected until it can become wisdom without being taken advantage of or abused or exploited by the wickedness and darkness of this world. Building a fortress is a sign that one recognizes potential threat, and fortresses, to be effective, have to be built before a threat is active and real.
There are reasons for this, whether we are looking literally or figuratively. Fortresses are fixed defenses that must be complete to be useful (after all, any undefended sector will draw attackers, since most attackers, rather sensibly enough, prefer to attack weak or undefended targets rather than spend resources and time going after well-defended and well-protected areas). Also, it takes time to figure out the best or most vulnerable point that one needs to defend, to examine what sort of threat is most likely at a given point, what materials are at hand to use for a defense, and how best to design a fortresses based upon threats and resources in men and material. None of these are straightforward tasks and they often take years, if not decades, to perfect. By the time an active threat shows up in a given area, it is too late to begin one’s defenses by then, whether we would wish to defend a patch of ground or our hearts and worldviews.
The singer Sting, in his song “Fortress Around Your Heart,” mused about the problems of building metaphorical defenses for a vulnerable heart. He commented that where he once played innocently he had to stop in his tracks for hear of walking on the mines he laid. All too often we are inattentive to the losses that occur when we build a fortress around our hearts or more literal defenses. Yes, those minefields may help keep our hearts or nations safe from attacks, but they may leave a lot of horribly maimed people who stumble innocently and naively on them after the original threats are no longer there.
Worse yet, sometimes we may be so complacent in our defenses that we may not realize that the time and expense we spent on our defenses was wasted. A good example of this is Fort Pulaski. Designed to help protect the vulnerable port of Savannah, Georgia against the British navy, it took decades to complete. Worse, it faced one enemy and found itself picked apart from long range by both smoothbore and rifled canons from a small Union army, having to surrender after a day of fighting without even having been put under siege. An expensive and state-of-the-art fortress was weighed in the balance and found wanting the first time it was put to the test, too late to provide any defense at all in its hour of need. Sadly, sometimes the same is true of our own personal defenses built because of our own hurts and life experiences.
I was reminded about this matter because of something that happened to someone who has not talked to me for years and a friend who has been estranged for some time , but who is going through a very difficult time because of the unfaithfulness of a partner of the same sort of pattern as has happened with him before. Knowing him to be a person who has been deeply wounded by what he has seen as betrayal, he (like many of us, myself included) has sought to guard his heart from those who would abuse it or take advantage of it, putting distance where it ought not to be necessary (again, something I know from my own personal experience). However, once we let someone in, they are able to do great harm to us if they choose to hurt us.
This reality places all of us, whether we are fortress builders of a literal or figurative kind, in a terrible bind. We recognize that we are in need of defense, that we are charged with guarding precious and vulnerable ground, we have limited resources and time and a very dangerous world full of threats to cope with, and yet we have to be careful that our defenses will do their intended job while also minimizing our own complacency as well as the chance of injuring innocents while increasing our real security. These are not simple and straightforward tasks. To make matters even more complicated, we have to find a way to properly distinguish between genuine threats and that which is not threatening lest we wear ourselves out trying to defend against everyone and leaving ourselves isolated and exhausted (like a body worn out from its own hyperactive defense systems). Given the constraints we are all under, it is a wonder that our defenses and our fortresses work as well as they do.