Last November marked the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Coincidentally, it was also the 20th anniversary of the first Hero’s Quest (aka Quest for Glory 1) release. One was a world-changing event, and one was “just a game”, but both had personal significance to me.
You see, I was in Germany when the Wall still stood. And I cried with joy when it came down.
There are walls around cities, and the walls we build around ourselves. We spend a lot of time hiding behind walls because we think they will protect us. But we forget that the walls that keep others out also trap us inside.
Taking a Chance
Back in 1971, I had a rare opportunity. My high school (Abington High near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) had an exchange student program affiliated with AFS. Each year one or two students from Abington went to school in a foreign country. I applied and became one of the finalists, but I felt I was outclassed by some of the other candidates.
Then a funny thing happened. Abington broke off its affiliation with AFS and decided to run their own program. Abington had a “sister school” in Berlin, Germany, so chose that for their exchange program. But a wall stood in the way, and that wall was the memory of the Holocaust. Every other top candidate was from a Jewish family. They didn’t trust that their children would be safe in Germany without a major program like AFS behind the exchange. One by one, the parents of each of the other finalists withdrew their children’s applications until I was the last one standing.
I felt as though I had “won by default”, but the selection committee assured me that I was fully qualified and would be a great representative of the school. By the way, my father was also Jewish, but believed that his children should have the chance to follow their dreams. He did not let fear get in the way. Many of the opportunities in my life have worked out that way – A door opens briefly, and you either step through it quickly or watch it shut in front of you. This time I went through the door.
A City Alone
Berlin in the 1970’s was a unique city. By the armistice that ended World War II, Germany was divided among the Soviet and other Allied forces. Berlin, the former capitol, was also divided, but it was in the middle of East Germany. All trade with the West had to pass through Soviet-controlled territory. By 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people took advantage of the open border in Berlin to leave Communist East Germany.
East Germany came up with a unique solution – They began to build barriers, and eventually the actual Wall – all around the Western sectors of Berlin. We’re talking a literal wall, several yards high, with a 100-yard “killing zone” on the East Berlin side. It was like the “Escape from New York” film – a major city completely separated from the rest of its own country and all of its allies.
King Solomon supposedly solved a dispute between two women, both of whom claimed to be the mother of a baby, by proposing that the baby be cut in half, with each woman getting half a baby. In the case of Berlin, the Allies literally did “cut it up”. Fortunately, cities are more resilient than babies, and Berlin survived the surgery. I think this is unprecedented in history. West Berlin became a unique place, cosmopolitan, thriving, yet always isolated and under the shadow of The Wall.
Which Side Are You On?
The building of the Berlin Wall was not the first act to divide the German people. One of my instructors at Kant Gymnasium had been a Lieutenant in the German army during World War II. One day he stopped to talk with me on a stairwell, and he said that he sincerely regretted having supported Hitler’s government, and that many of the soldiers and officers had felt the same way.
I asked him – naively, I suppose – why they hadn’t found some way to protest or resist. He told me that they had no choice. He knew that if he did not follow orders, and ensure that his men followed orders in turn, his family in Berlin would have been hurt or killed. He could see no way to break through the wall of rules and laws that constrained him.
It is never easy to break from the norm, be different, or work to bring about change in a hostile society. Most people, most of the time, go along with the rules we are given. We live our lives according to a pattern and rarely stop to examine whether we could do better by breaking down the walls of habit.
We also create our own mental walls. Once we make up our minds, we have a lot of inertia towards continuing to do what we have been doing. We like to be “right”, and the easiest way to do that is to ignore anything that might force us to change our opinions. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes. We learn far more from our mistakes than when we get things right the first time. Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.
Walls Between People
The destruction of the Berlin Wall was a life and world changing event. It had stood for almost 30 years, dividing friend from friend and family from family. When I visited Berlin in the early 1970’s, the Wall seemed a permanent, unalterable fact of nature. As an American, I could cross over with some slight risk, but to a Berliner, East and West Berlin were two different worlds. One was Democratic, one Communist; one Capitalist and commercial, the other Socialist and relatively impoverished. Germans could not move freely back and forth, and there seemed little common ground beyond the language.
November 1989 changed all that. The Wall began to come down, piece by piece. Families were reunited. Friends old and new found they had much more in common than they could have realized. Less than one year later, the two Germanies became one. And now it’s hard to imagine they were ever separated.
We build walls all the time. Whether the construction materials are political affiliations, gender, social or religious differences, educational background, or standards of hygiene, we make quick decisions about other people and then base our relationships on those first assumptions. Those instincts are often “right”, in that our subconscious minds use a lot of hidden details to make choices. But they aren’t flexible. When evidence comes in that contradicts our initial assumptions, we are usually poor at adapting and adjusting our beliefs. And that builds walls.
If you want to have more friends, or to be more effective in life, you need to learn to tear down some of those walls, or at least find a way to climb them. Learn to role-play, empathize, and understand what drives the people around you. Don’t assume you know what they’re thinking; start a real dialogue and ask them. You can find things in common with almost anyone if you open yourself up and work at it. And if there’s nothing in common, that just means you have an opportunity to learn and perhaps to teach.
Take Down the Walls
We can all benefit from the lessons of the Berlin Wall. Our lives are made poorer by the separation we create between ourselves and others. Our rote day-to-day patterns keep us from seeing the richness that life has to offer. Our “party line” political decisions lock us into an “Us vs. Them” mentality that benefits none of us.
The walls that keep others out also lock us in. Make some new friends, try some new things, and tear down the walls that separate you from other people. You will find a new sense of freedom and joy beyond those walls.