Lessons from the cell, lessons to the wall: you can’t protect and grow at the same time

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In the beginning was the cell. This is how everyone started, as simply as this, with a dividing cell. There is a lot of magic in the beginning of life. The fact of life itself, how random it appears, which egg and which sperm finally fusing, that out of that tiny moment of penetration comes cheekbones and a dry sense of humor. In its earliest stage, there is a thick sticky fluid that is somewhat like egg whites left out on the kitchen counter for a few hours.  This thick sticky fluid is the cellular membrane. It is very very thin. Science could not see it until the 1950s, when a microscope was built that was powerful enough to see something this small.

There would be no life without this membrane. You would not exist. This membrane is what keeps any group of molecules together and in a single place.  It’s not a single membrane, but two layers with a space in the middle.  The cellular membrane is why you have a shape, a body that moves. It’s why you aren’t just sea water puddling on the ground. The cellular membrane is the boundary that keeps everything that doesn’t belong, whether it is harmful or wrong or just plain confusing, on the other side.  It releases waste and it lets nourishment in.  It’s smart, this cellular membrane. It stores energy, it maintains fuel supplies. It vibrates. It communicates. It decides who and what and when is coming through. When I say “decides” what I mean is that the cellular membrane has a kind of memory; an ability to recognize that which is supportive of life and that which causes harm.  It also recognizes its own people: heart cells recognize heart cells, liver cells recognize liver cells. This recognition happens at the membrane.  This is intelligence.

Evolution. First we had the brilliance of a single celled organism, an individual, and that was all we had for billions of years. This was when the earth itself was young, plant life going through whole histories and generations before they had exhaled enough oxygen to coat this hard rock ball with its own membrane, its’ atmosphere. And then came the single cell organism, we don’t know why, maybe it was aliens, maybe something divine, for all we know, Adam and Eve were two cells bumping up against each other, this is how life as we know it began. A single cell. And it was enough. But evolution happens and complexity is cool so eventually those single cells found out that you could move further and do more things if you join forces. We are stronger in community, so we became a multicellular organism, a body, just like you are right now. Fifty trillion cells, over 800 times the number of people on this earth, all living together, figuring out this life thing so that we could continue, generation after generation. Life exploding, life receding, evolution happens just like that, and all because of the cellular membrane. And the fact that it grows. Except when it doesn’t.

The cellular membrane is like the skin on our bodies. It’s like the ozone layer around this planet. Here at this membrane, decisions are made. It’s here where we decide who we are and who we are not.

The cellular membrane is there to learn which means to grow. This is, after all, why life exists: to experience itself. As life experiences itself, it learns. The cellular membrane is also there to protect the cell.  And here is the quandary: the cell cannot grow and protect at the same time. Protection for the cell means shutting down reception, shutting down the fluidity that allows learning. From the beginning, from when that first singular cell bumbled its way to life in the warm ocean soup, protection has been designed to be temporary.  Something you do in a moment until the threat passes. It is not a state that is supposed to continue, a permanent way of being. There is no space for wisdom here if protection never ends. Growth is the forever part, it’s what we call life. We cannot protect and grow at the same time.

The cellular membrane shifts, opening and closing, a thousand small decisions that are about relationship and change. It cannot shut down because if the membrane shuts down, if it becomes a wall, then the cell will die. The cell will not be nourished. With only three seconds of oxygen at any given moment, if the membrane turns to a wall, the cell can not breathe.

A cell in protective mode triggers all kinds of other things in the body, an immune system response that means the release of histamines and noripenephrine, fluid responses that feel to us like anxiety, like stress, feel like a racing heart, a dry mouth, skin tightened, eyes looking quickly from left to right. These are evolution’s way of saying very loudly: we have to do something now because we are in danger. The protective mode is fast and is what helps us dart out of the way or push back or fold our arms over our heart and prepare to die. Evolution gifted us with a simple system: to grow is life and when we need to protect, it is supposed to be temporary until the danger is past. Once the danger is past, we grow again. This is called wisdom.

Cellular membranes also get called cell walls. That’s what most people call them. Walls do not allow growth: they only support protection.  When the cell has to protect itself, to shut itself down, it triggers an immune system response. An immune response is the body fighting for its life because it knows, if the cell wall stops letting life through, the cell will die.

 Cell walls are intelligent. They communicate, they store energy and maintain fuel supplies. They are fluid things, able to let life come back and forth, to evolve and shift in response to how life shows up on either side. They are not walls, they are membranes. The membrane receives signals from the cell’s environment, depending on which molecules attach themselves to the membrane wall; it interprets the signals and tells the cell what to do; and these signals are how we create ourselves through stress, nutrition, through our feelings and response.

 The intelligence that is here, in this cellular membrane, this very thin wall of fluid and fat, is where we decide who we are and who we are not.  If a cellular membrane shuts down with protection for too long, the cell will die. It literally can’t breathe. This is not something that most people choose. When this happens, it usually means something has taken place, an act of harm, an overwhelm by a person, by a virus, by bacteria. Shutting down this membrane, this wall, is not something that most people choose.


In the meantime, I built a lot of wall. I have a lot of money and I built a lot of wall. Donald Trump, February 2019

Susan Raffo