Tearing Down Walls

Today’s a big deal: The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall.  Do you remember where you were that day?  I was working in Kenya at the time, on an early micro-lending program, taking our cues from the young (now famed) Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, to support the development of women-owned businesses.  I remember one of my Kenyan co-workers (his name was Justus, pronounced “justice”, may he RIP) brought his radio to the office and a few of us gathered around to hear the unbelievable news over the BBC.

I recall one of my thoughts that day:  an experience from the year before.  I was in a graduate international relations class where I got to know and appreciate a group of classmates we affectionately called the “Joint Chiefs of Staff.”  They were West Point or ROTC grads from various universities and most had returned from service with NATO before starting grad school.  Coming from Southern California to the program, I had never had direct contact with military officers.  I admit I was deeply intimidated and/or afraid of these guys when I met them.  I’m probably still intimidated, but for different reasons.  I got to know them for their integrity, great sense of humor, outstanding work ethic, willingness to help out a classmate anytime, and overall, just for being great guys.  It’s been my privilege to know them.

On November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, though, I felt I’d scored a victory over our Joint Chiefs.  In class the previous year they argued “Realpolitik,” that there was no chance for peace with the Soviet enemies, and a symbol like the Berlin Wall was essentially impenetrable, short of a military option.  Sounding hopelessly naïve, I stammered an argument around “peace is possible!”   I had long been influenced by views like those espoused in The Promise of World Peace.

We’re still a long way from whirled peas world peace, but I always remember this experience (“It IS possible – the wall could come down peacefully!”) when I need to restore my optimism that things can get better in our world.  One of the ideas that’s really stuck with me from The Promise of World Peace is a “paralyzing contradiction” in world affairs:  good people WANT peace, but don’t think it’s possible.  We need to believe in the possibility of peace in order to realize it and work for it.  Another way of looking at this:  Pray for rain and carry an umbrella.  The fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us that anything is possible. (As with most victories, there were casualties, though, and one I don’t hear people talking about is the fact that the U.S. foreign aid budget to poor countries in Africa and elsewhere was decimated as attention moved to the former Soviet bloc.  But that’s for another post…)

Perhaps more difficult than tearing down a crumbling, physical wall is attacking the walls each of us carries more subtly:  the barriers that keep us apart, whether they are economic, racial, religious, cultural, or whatever.  On top of the old baggage, our society seems very good at creating new biases:  stay-at-home vs. working moms and dads; overweight, undertall, over-aged, under-employed, kinky-haired, straight-laced, red, blue, and more.

Most of us want better for our future.  Our kids didn’t grow up with a looming concrete wall between East and West; let’s not erect new ones.

Do you remember where you were when the wall fell?  Do you have some ideas to share for helping kids confront potential biases, to avoid new walls going up?  I’d love to hear your memories, and your ideas.

P.S.  If you have a few minutes, see this meditation on what the wall is inspiring these days – sort of like turning swords into plowshares: turning the Wall into art.

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