Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lessons from Berlin

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is no progress without apology. Personally, politically, in the workplace, in the home, we will do things that unintentionally—or intentionally— cause harm. When something is unintentional, it’s often easier to apologize: “My bad. I didn’t realize that would offend you.” When something is intentional, it’s a bit more difficult: “Yeah, I knew I treated you like dirt so I could feel better about myself and get rich on your labor and enjoy watching you suffer because I felt threatened by our difference and yeah, I know I got the priests and scientists and teachers to assure me that this was God or nature’s plan and was meant to be so I could sleep easily at night and yeah, I guess it was just wrong, wrong, wrong and hey, let’s just get over it and move on and…what’s that? Oh yeah, okay, I’m SORRY. Now are we done?” Not so easy. At least for Americans.

But as a whole the Germans have done it admirably. I spent a rainy day in Berlin touring the various sites associated with the horror of the holocaust and everywhere, the official word sponsored by the German government, taught to the kids in school, prominently displayed for tourists is the frank admission that this was a horrible period in their history that must never happen again. They look it straight in the eye and say so and mean it. To take just one example, their acceptance of refugees and efforts to support them once they’re here is light years ahead of the United States. Especially now.

Here’s the good news. On the other side of apology is the possibility of a culture flourishing, of a rising from the ashes. Berlin is that miracle. First the site of extreme terror under the Third Reich and then another 40 years of at least half the city suffering from the Stalin legacy. And now? It’s hip, it’s happening, it’s vibrant, it’s alive, it’s the meeting point of diverse cultures (reflected in its fabulous restaurants) and the worst thing I can say after my first day is—well, a few too many nose rings for my taste. That’s pretty mild.

And so, America, when will we apologize? And mean it? When will we look our history straight in the eye, make all school children go to plantations and reservations, own our mistakes and clear the way for a flourishing that will serve us all? While I'm touring the remains of the Berlin Wall and hearing again the remarkable story of its fall, we're about to build one. Really? Can we bring the Germans over to educate us? Just a thought.

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