Sunday, February 21, 2010

Organization Development Network Brief gets me thinking about the fall of the Berlin Wall

Peter Norlin, Executive Director of the OD Network wrote a piece back in October 2009 (as you can tell by my flurry of posts, I'm clearing out my "to blog" box with this first weekend of relative calm in quite a while).

While it had a larger focus of the walls that OD practitioners put up, I sidetracked on the introductory piece which I paste here:

OD Network Briefs, October 2009

News from the Organization Development Network

Snarling, stinking, snapping his fore-fangs,
out of the woods, wild waste beyond woods,
comes beast, comes brute, carnivorous, ravenous,
but before him--and oh, we were saved--rose our wall.

Violent, fearsome, with invulnerable helmet and shield,
Comes antagonist, foe, furious, pitiless, lethal,
axe-men behind him chanting their cuneiform curse,
but before him--and oh, saved again--loomed our wall.

So we raised ever more walls, even walls
that might fail: Jericho shucked from its ramparts,
men, women, old, young, all slaughtered.
What did it matter? We believed still in our wall.

Then the inspiration to build walls facing in!
Reservation, concentration camp, ghetto,
finally whole countries walled in, and saved were we
from traitors who'd dare wish to flee our within.

That such walls fail, too, fall, too? No matter.
Only raise more. That all walls, facing out or in,
fail, fall, leaving fossils of lives in numb rubble?
No matter. Raise more. Only raise more.

C.K. Williams, "Wall."

Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-, National Book Award-winning poet, wrote this chilling verse to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, an event whose images and implications reverberated quickly around the world. In Willams's short review of the history of human wall-building, however, it's clear that he doesn't believe that, as a familiar solution to terror, hubris, or xenophobia, we're probably done with walls. Consider, as an example, our own trust in the wall we've been erecting on the U.S./Mexican border, designed to discourage illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

While I have nothing other than my increasingly-unreliable memory of world history as support, the poet's position--that we've obviously never learned any lessons about walls--seems persuasive. Despite a long, comprehensive documentation of their failure, it seems that we somehow believe--no, we know--that our best defense in this difficult situation would clearly be . . . a wall! Such a choice sadly, certainly exposes our inability to think systemically. Clearly, we're drawn to walls intuitively, even though they don't work, because we believe they should work. So what a dramatic symbol of the aspirations and limitations of the human mind walls turn out to be.

I didn't really have any deeper thoughts than those offered by the poet or the executive director. I thought at a more personal level about where I was and what I was doing when the Berlin Wall fell. I was living in France serving as a missionary. I actually didn't even learn about the wall fall until a few weeks after it happened when we caught glimpses of it on the news at someone's house. The work in which I was engaged, and the conditions we imposed on ourselves to increase our effectiveness were walls to my even hearing about the event and its implications. It reminds me a bit now of the pleasant isolation I enjoyed while we were living in Hawaii as I filled a visiting faculty position at BYU-Hawaii. News events did not really have to be very timely in some respect- whether things happening on the mainland happened a week ago or yesterday had little impact in our day to day life- completely disconnected. Walls of focused work, blocking out the outside, or walls of geography, separation by distance.
In any case, a bit of an interesting exercise to think of the walls erected of various kinds, and their implications for us at work, home, etc.

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