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A Small Reflection on a Big Wall

As the world was marking the thirtieth anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 2019), I was going through some of my old yearbooks---from my graduating years of elementary school (P.S. 215, June 1972), junior high school (David A. Boody Junior High School, June 1974), and high school (John Dewey High School, June 1977). Many treasured memories of days gone by.

But one thing jumped out at me, quite ironically. I could not get over how many of my classmates signed my yearbooks with phrases such as: "To my friend Chris, Love you until the Berlin Wall falls!" I suspect they meant "forever"---because it seemed to those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War that this would be the state of the world long after we were all gone.

Or to be more historically specific: We all have a tendency to reify our current circumstances as if they are unalterable. I look back at any generation that has faced what appear to be insurmountable difficulties: my parents, aunts, and uncles who lived through World War II and even my own generation that has lived under the shadow of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the post-Cold War events that have unfolded since 9/11, coupled with the exponential rise of political tribalism, economic nationalism, and "progressive" democratic socialism offered as panaceas. With a nod toward gallows humor, I chuckle at Marx's classic maxim that history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

But I think that, in the end, as witnesses to history, we cannot deny that circumstances both echo the past and, at surprising moments in our lives, like the events of thirty years ago, smash its most intractable assumptions.

I know the world is not a pleasant place nowadays; polarization on the home front has not been this pronounced since the 1960s, in my humble opinion. But for those of us who value human liberty, and the vigilance it takes to keep and preserve it, there is a seemingly intractable paradox: The only thing that makes the building of walls possible is the weakest of human desires, motivated typically by fear---the desire to rule or to be ruled---because the prospect of freedom is often overwhelming in the demands it places on personal responsibility and the need to "step up" on behalf of the rights of our neighbors. But the only thing that makes the falling of walls inevitable is the more powerful human desire to embrace that freedom---and all the possibilities it offers for the flourishing of the human condition.

So to my classmates from elementary school, middle school, and high school, I know what you meant when you inscribed my yearbooks with that old Berlin Wall metaphor. I can only offer a very small reflection on a very big wall: Love endures longer than walls. And the fight for freedom requires the dismantling of the walls that continue to separate and constrain us.