Remember the old phone gag;

“Is Mr Wall there?” [No], “Is Mrs Wall there?” [No]. “Well is Tommy Wall there?” [No]. “Are there any Walls there?” [No]. “So how does your roof stay up then?”

They give us shelter and warmth. They provide protection. We decorate them to make us feel better about the space they create. They give definition to the variety of spaces we live in. At best this allows us to function in a variety of ways. At worst, they promote misunderstanding by hiding reality or segregating.

Perhaps the most potent icon of the changes we experienced in the late 20th Century is the Berlin Wall. Contrary to popular conception, it was the ‘free people’ of West Germany that were enclosed within its walls. Completely surrounded by East Germany, the Westerners found themselves trapped in a ‘free enclave’. One road out through the East German countryside connected them to the outside world. This accurate picture subversively helps to reframe the idea of separation.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Germans generally and Berliners particularly, so experience the collapse of the Wall. I recall tears welling up and the lump in my throat. I knew nothing and had not even sipped from the cup of segregation that defined so much of their lives.

Much of the Wall still stands. A small length is preserved untouched, most of it has become a canvas for Berlin’s thriving art community. Meandering along beside it in the hot sun, it is as good as impossible to imagine what this city must have been like just 20 years ago.

We still build Walls like this. Maybe not ones of steel reinforcement and concrete, but Walls none-the-less. They are the Walls that keep ‘otherness’ away from us. Our separateness feeds our misunderstanding so our prejudice snowballs. It is dangerous to try to cross over.

There are political divides – TV networks do well out of pitting tribal thought leaders against each other like legal cock fights. There are culture divides. Just walk around the city and observe the stereo-typical uniforms of the different tribes; executives, emos, indigenous people, retail workers and on and on. Age, race, economic status, gender …

So here is the point. It is not that we need a pseudo-homogenous society. How violating would that be? The point is that our lives could be so much richer if we were able to embrace diversity. Indifference might be replaced by curiosity. Misunderstanding by appreciation. Dislike by deep respect.

The parliament building spans the Spree (River) in Berlin. The modern glass buildings on either side of the river are joined design and by walkways. A great symbol if unification in contrast to a Wall.

Immersion experiences in which we suspend judgement and listen are much needed in our world. Without them, the safety and protection that some of our Walls apparently give us is illusionary.

2 thoughts on “walls

  1. Hi Col,

    great post:-) Thanks for the insight as an “outsider” and being in contact with people from Eastern Germany for almost 18 years now I have to say, there are still walls (even higher and more secured) between East and West Germany.

    The walls mainly exist in the walls and people in the West never been in contact with relatives or friends in the East during the “old” times and now not willing to leave their mental models of the past behind make it even more diffiicult to actually see them and start to tear them down.

    Berlin is a good starting point and yet most people separate by themselves in either the Western or Eastern suburbs with their peers. The seeds of connecting and sharing stories is evolving slowly and even more strenuous out in the Eastern countryside or cities people are not very fond of travelling to such as Chemnitz, Zwickau, Schwedt, etc..

    Nevertheless it needs connectors and boundary-spanners like you (and perhaps me as well) who get the stories on how the world can live together told across the globe.

    As we have both seen in Muscat, Oman, during the 3rd SoL Global Forum it is possible -even on a broader scale:-))



  2. Ralf, thanks too for your reflections. We ended up here a day late after our flight out of Melbourne was cancelled and we had the joy of a couple of nights on the airline in hotels in cities that were never part of the plan. Today has included a wander down Karl Marx Avenue, scene of the military parades. Strange feelings. This city has a lot to like about it. The eclectic cafe culture makes a Melbourne-ite like me feel right at home. Next time I am here I look forward to having you show me your corner of this fascinating country.

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