The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall must make for dry reading for the younger generations – so what? A wall came down – walls go up and come down – it’s happening all the time.
This was different though – but I would say that wouldn’t I? A friend sent me a small piece of concrete from the wall and we were all overjoyed – it was a victory for freedom, for hope and for democracy and it was great to be alive.
When I was a new teacher of English in the late 1970s and early 80s – I taught many German CEOs, industrialists and executives whose families were immediately affected by the aftermath of World War II. “What young people today do not realise is that we Germans could not take that single step to cross the ‘border’ into France or Belgium and vice versa, that is why the European Union (then called the EC) is such a miracle,” one said.
Another told me of the distress for him that his father, supported by his mother, both of whom he loved dearly, proudly flew the Nazi flag over their family home, even after defeat by the Allies and the subsequent revelations.
Two bright clever young women, German executives of a French cosmetics giant clearly upset said “WE personally did not do this, why does everybody blame the young generation of Germans. Why should WE feel guilty?” Those young women must be mothers or even grandmothers to their own children and grandchildren today – sharing with them the answers they perhaps found to their confusion.
On the other side of the divide – my French grandmother lost her beloved father in World War I, a country boy plucked from the fields to fight for a cause that meant nothing to him. He lies in a mass grave in the Pas de Calais in a war that was called the ‘meat-grinder’ because so many fighting men – especially the young foot soldiers - died in their thousands.
Her husband, my grandfather fought in World War II, a young farmer, father of (eventually) five boys, a quiet man who grew up in a house full of books and with an upright piano. He was hit by a sniper bullet; he saw all the men around him dying and expected to die at any moment. He survived to show us his scar and his medals.
Every family anywhere in the world who has experienced war or terrorist attack, or invasion or occupation has these heart-rending stories to tell, all different and unique but stories of loss and pain, confusion, mistrust and memories that never leave. These events become stains on our collective consciousness and affect generations to come and can never be removed or washed away.
Even with forgiveness, a life cut short, a broken heart, serious injury, a nation destroyed, a people all but annihilated can never be restored. We have one chance at this life, we must get it right, the repercussions of not doing so are unthinkable at personal and global levels.
As the events of the first half of last century risk losing their impact and urgency as time passes and developed countries wrestle with obesity, cognitive overload from multiple digital channels, overspending and the carbon footprint of strawberries in December, the falling of the Berlin Wall reminds us of the horror of totalitarianism and ‘locked in’ societies and conversely of the possibility of change and restoration – the beginning of healing and the power of unshakable belief that things can and will change.
So many of us have read with horror the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’, the French Anne Frank, Hélène Berr’s ‘Journal’, Nemirovsky's Suite Française, Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ and very young children have watched ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Then there’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and ‘Schindler’s List’, both have powerful magnificent career-defining performances from outstanding actors – but are we really sure that such horrors could not happen again or indeed are not happening today? Have they become fiction? Or Faction or Fake History or Hollywood tropes?
We can name from our reading and education more, rather than by direct experience, villains of history, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Savonarola, Elizabeth Báthory, Ted Bundy, Harold Shipman and so many more. Phew what a relief – “I could never be THAT bad – that really is evil.” I judge, I condemn, I feel I am better than they are.
There is much talk in analytical circles of so-called ‘Everyday Psychopaths’ in plain sight, in our homes and offices and institutions. They - should I say we – (Who knows how we would behave in wartime?) as we all have elements and trace characteristics - lead normal lives. They are the ruthless business professionals “It’s not personal – it’s business,” they say. Wrong – ‘It’ is always personal.
They are the charming manipulative negotiator or diplomat. They are fare and tax dodgers as fares and taxes and speed limits are for ‘the little people’ They are the trolls, the stalkers, the traffickers and the shouting swearing bad-tempered bullies and the abusers. They are those who mistreat animals. They are anyone who thinks that they or their family and friends are more important than any other human sharing this earth and this universe. We know that there are psychopathic countries throughout history and in our present day.
They/we are those who think negative thoughts (‘things’) and draw chaos and negativity towards them/us, even in the most subtle and inadvertent ways – the ‘just sayin’ crowd.
Lovers of Jane Austen will remember the scene in ‘Emma’ where the heroine, out on a picnic, showing off and being clever with casual cruelty asks Miss Bates, a weaker, trusting character to limit herself to saying, “only three dull things.” As Emma evolves – she realises the ugly, self-indulgent cruelty of her remark and burns with shame.
When I point my finger in judgement, three fingers point back at myself. I need to be the change that I want to see. People are often doing the best that they can - given their circumstances. In order to develop compassion – try to imagine what an individual’s reality must be to make suicide or murder or abuse the best option – without spending too long in that mindset.
War and hurt and abuse – whatever the apparent outcome - is always ‘lose/lose’, the web is weakened. Something is lost. Sports reporters, political pollsters and even Godric Gryffindor’s hat at Hogwarts may try to polarise us and pit us against each other and make it a zero-sum game – unless we are all content – no one can be truly happy. We share the same DNA – we are one family, you are my brothers and sisters; your joys are my joys; your sorrows are mine too. At the highest spiritual levels, Buddhism teaches that it is impossible to be happy when another sentient being is unhappy. Just one death is a tragedy, for a family, for a community for a nation and a world. We call on leaders of the highest calibre to step up.
As we whoop for joy at the pulling down of the wall that for 28 years separated West and East Berlin only 30 years ago, let us celebrate the falling of walls of ignorance, of fear, of terror, of misplaced privacy, of walls material and walls spiritual between the great faiths of the world. Let us reach out, albeit with natural caution and self-protection, the hand of friendship and learn how to love and respect our differences, our strange and mystifying behaviours. It will be difficult – it is our evolutionary task.
Let us cherry-pick the very best from each country and culture and tradition. And let each one of us take 100% responsibility for the change we want to see and be that change. Forget judgment and outrage, let each of us develop personal codes without blind allegiance to dogma or a charismatic leader or creed or “the way it has always been.” Let us each lead ourselves to our personal best, comparing ourselves to who we were yesterday not to who someone else is today – one of Jordan Petersen’s ‘12 Rules for Life’. Let’s create new templates.
Let us not try to persuade others. Let not our right hand know what our left hand is doing. Every day let’s ask “Is this really the best I can do?” Let us live by example that others may know us by our fruits and not by our virtue signalling. Let us create peace, prosperity and a magnificent environment for the thousands of babies who were born today and will be born every day – the ambassadors from the future who trust and look up to us and may we never again – especially unknowingly - cause harm in thought, word or deed. Never.
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