Knock, Knock, Who’s There?
It is now some nine years since I last spoke on the subject of doors, so I thought it might be permissible to return to the topic.
What triggered off a train of thought was reading the other day the words of a highly paid, and therefore, it surely follows very important, chief of some large commercial company, who intoned, in reply to the suggestion that his company had been involved in some secret dealings, “This organisation has an open door policy”. This observation, you will know, is from a collection of modern, standard jargon, to be quoted when one wants to give an appearance of frankness whilst at the same time avoiding the necessity of confirming or denying any wrong-doing, let alone answering the question.
Nevertheless, the concept of an open door is a good one. It suggests, amongst others things, a welcome to all, a lack of obsessive secrecy, a person prepared to listen to the fears, anxieties or complaints of others, a generous spirit, someone to be regarded as an every ready help in trouble. A person I know well and much admire, who heads a large establishment, always has the door of her room open, unless speaking with a member of staff or a visitor. It is then closed to protect their privacy and so that visitors may be sure that that confidences may be respected.
After the interview, the door is again opened wide. The unspoken message is one of inclusion, of accessibility, of being part of the whole community of the workplace.
It is a statement of the obvious to say a door has two sides, and that many doors may be locked from one or other of those sides. I am informed that a prisoner hearing for the first time the door of the prison cell shutting and the key turning from the other side feels complete desolation. I can’t vouch for this statement from personal experience, at least not up to the present moment – but who knows what the future holds, my luck may run out – but I can imagine the loneliness and isolation of being shut out from the world.
That is not to say that there aren’t times when we are glad to lock the door from the inside, feeling safe and secure in our home. We enjoy privacy at a time chosen by ourselves, so we shut out the outside world. The difference between closing the door of ones own home, and being locked in by the jailor is a question of who is in control. We voluntarily shut ourselves in, barring intrusion from the outside world, whilst in the other instance the world isolates us. In the one scene, we choose, as opposed to the other example when the choice is imposed upon us..
Shutting out, shutting in, opening the door, leaving the door ajar, are just some of the phrases built around this word ‘door’ which have entered the language as metaphors, as verbal pictures illustrative of abstract ideas, situations or emotions. No Victorian melodrama was complete without the inclusion of the phrase, “Never darken my door again”, the words of rejection, whereas an assurance that “You will not be turned away from my door” marks a friendship offered without reservation.
Physical doors, and the way we use them, tell much about the sort of person we are. Do we slam them in another’s face, or do we open them so that we can form a friendship. Do we go out into the world to see life and beauty around us? Do we go through the portals into the world outside so we can be a part of the community, or do we bolt and bar the door because we don’t want to “get involved”?
To be outside an unanswered door is a depressing experience. “Is there anyone there?” said the traveller, knocking at the moonlit door. But the door was unanswered and he rode away, leaving silence and emptiness behind him. “Tell them I came, and no-one answered,” he complained.
De la Mare’s poem reminds me of the stained glass window in the church I attended in childhood copied from that well-known picture illustrating words from the 3rd chapter of Revelations; I stand at the door and knock. No battering ram is used. The onus on opening the door rests with the person within.
As an aside this reminds me of an incident from childhood, and apologies if I’ve mentioned it before. Whilst on a summer holiday, we children were taken by our parents to a local Methodist service. The preacher had chosen the passage from Revelations as his text. I remember only two things about that sermon. First it was very long, and secondly each time the minister referred to the text, I stand at the door and knock, which he did at frequent intervals, he illustrated it by thumping three times very firmly on the side of the pulpit, so the sound reverberated round the chapel with a noise fit to waken the dead. No one slept through that sermon. But I’m digressing, one of my many sins.
Lest it be thought I am arguing against having doors at all, let me make it plain that doors are not merely useful, but essential. Even the most gregarious knows that there are times for privacy. Mediation, reflection, study, thoughtful wrestling with the problems life turns up, are all best done in the peace and quiet achieved by closing the door and shutting away the din and bustle of everyday life. Physical comfort demands the door be tightly closed when, as the old nursery rhyme puts it, “The cold winds do blow, and we shall have snow.” Doors also protect us against other unpleasant experiences, the thief or robber, the ill-disposed aggressor, the con man, the saleswoman, and maybe the political canvasser.
I could add the Jehovah’s Witness, but I mustn’t be uncharitable. The door will prevent the small child or the vulnerable adult from wandering into danger. Life without doors would be at best unpleasant and mostly dangerously insecure. No, I for one, along with most others, recognise that doors are an essential part of life.
We cannot live comfortable without them.
The whole purpose of a door is to act as a barrier. The difference between a door and many other types of barrier is that a door is hinged. That is, it is a barrier that may not only be erected, but can also be removed to allow ingress and egress. Knowing when it should debar and appreciating when it should open to allow free movement is in the hands of the doorkeeper.
I mentioned earlier that doors become metaphors. Our personalities are determined by the way we manipulate these stops in the entrances and exits that surround our relationship with others, our ability to make sense of the society in which we live, and perhaps most important of all, our spiritual development.
Much of what is said about doors in a physical sense translates easily into philosophical terms. We may shut people out of our lives or, alternatively we may lock them into ours, imprisoning them by our demands, our possessiveness, by emotional blackmail, by tyrannical rules. We may closet ourselves in our own little world, uncaring about the wider world, the appeals for help, our social responsibilities, hoarding what talents we may have in locked repositories. The rat-tat of the knocker, the peal of the bell, go unanswered. We know what we like and this doesn’t include any form of intrusion, be it physical or intellectual.
We live in a castle, a fortress so we stay safe inside, risking nothing, giving nothing, yielding nothing.
Ideas need to have open access to minds, not to be ignored without examination because the door is unanswered. It has been said that education is about opening doors, and windows also, so that new vistas are opened, vision widened and one may step out into world fresh to our experience.
However, just as I argued that doors were essential in a physical sense, so I believe that doors in this figurative interpretation are equally necessary. There are times when we should shut our minds to intrusive suggestions, tempting attractions or evil ideas. The story of Jesus in the wilderness rejecting temptation to seek personal power is a case rightly made for shutting the door. I mentioned the prison door earlier. Many, probably most, hear the physical clanging of that door because they failed earlier to close their metaphorical door to one or more of the deadly sins. Totalitarian ideologies ought to knock in vain at a firmly barred door. Not every siren call should tempt us outside.
We are our own doorkeepers. Doorkeepers in everyday life need training and experience to enable them to judge when the door should be flung open, when to be cautious and change the intruder, and when to firmly keep the door shut. Likewise we judge when we ought to venture outside, and when it would be more prudent to remain indoors. Mistakes can be made, but may be minimised with good judgement based on our experience and that of others.
Compassion and tolerance need a free passage, the voice of conscience ought not to be repulsed with a slammed door. Mercy should stride in and out easily, not trying to squeeze through the keyhole or the letterbox. On the other hand, watch out for the big bad wolf talking smoothly but intent on evil. Take care to lock the door, shut the windows and keep a wary eye on the fireplace.
Care for the neighbour cannot effectively be done if one remains indoors. Loving one’s neighbour, serving one’s community, exercising compassion, rejoicing in the beauty of creation and much else is best done by opening the door and stepping outside, both literally and by opening the gateways of the mind. It may be necessary to place on the door of a building a notice saying, Private, Keep out, or, on the inside, No Way Out. But there is surely no place for such notices in the metaphorical doors of our minds and hearts.
Much of the Christian teaching draws on the imagery of gates and doors, of keys and pathways, of ways in and openings to let messengers enter. It behoves us to close doors with care and after careful thought, and then be anxious to throw them open them again as soon as possible.
C.J. Rosling 27th January 2007
Hucklow January 2007