On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke to the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall. In that speech he uttered his famous words: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" This may be remembered as one of his greatest speeches. On Nov. 9-11, 1989, the people of a free Berlin tore down that wall.
It's now twenty years later and the world seems to be saying the same thing to President Obama, who clearly gets the message. He in turn appears to be telling America to do the same. But America is resisting. America is pushing back.
But these walls are different walls. They are the thick siloed walls that have kept America insulated and isolated from the rest of world. For more than two hundred years the two oceans and non-threatening countries to the North and South and this apparent barrier to entry allowed America to grow and prosper and surpass all other nations of the world. However what has enabled us to get to this point is now preventing us from progressing further. We are still reeling and have not found our footing from 9/11 which replaced a relative secure barrier to hostile invasion to living under the shadow of intermittent Code Orange Threat levels. Countries that embrace and work together synergistically - even adopting a common currency, the Euro - are passing us by.
There are three ways to break down the silos that separate America from other countries and separate Americans from each other, Democrats and Republicans from each other, men and women from each other, rich and poor from each other, young and old (and all the generations between) from each other.
More accurately, when these ways are engaged in, the walls spontaneously fall.
1. The sky above. An African native who was visiting Manhattan remarked, "They don't see the sky." The sky above is a shared, uplifting and ennobling vision that peoples in every silo will gladly work towards. One possibility I'd suggest is the vision of a world that your and my great grandchildren (who I will likely not live to see, but who the children I adore and who in turn will adore their children will) will one day walk into will be full of possibility for success based on merit, free of war, with health, freedom, liberty and justice for all.
2. The ground below. That is our shared humanity. Sadly, ff that African native came back today and was asked to comment about Manhattan, I think he might say, "They don't see each other." To counter that we need to reach out to each other to demonstrate spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity and to be vulnerable (in the open vs. the threatened sense). If we do that we will not only touch into our shared humanity, we will touch our WE that really can overcome and the WE that are the world.
3. Communication with instead of at or over each other. It's rare that people talk with each other. In fact it seems almost that talking to each other is losing out to talking at each other. Perhaps the greatest single example of the power of talking with instead of at each other not only brought down walls, it ended the Cold War. It occurred in 1985 when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev said he and President Ronald Reagan "stopped demonizing one another." Reagan was leaving the room after an angry exchange - but stopped and "in one moment switched his focus, his mental state, his emotion from anger to engagement. ... He then said calmly, 'This isn't working. May I call you Mikhail and will you call me Ron?' Gorbachev says that was the first step in shifting their relationship.
The challenge that Obama faces however is that these three ways of dealing with each other and life in general appear to be currently highly un-American (Dick Cheney is the poster child for just how absent they are). Regardless of his efforts to entreat us to develop and move towards a shared, ennobling vision, Americans seem locked in a "zero sum" game of "the hell with you, what's in it for me."
America is also a country that exalts in emotionality and excitement and stimulation but runs away from experiencing and expressing feelings. And trust me, as much as women claim they are in touch with their feelings more than men, both genders, and for that matter all generations are equally out of touch with their feelings. Americans run from feeling their hurt and fear as hurt and fear and will do anything to keep from feeling them (which by the way makes them all calm down) and in the bargain lose touch with each other's and their own humanity.
Finally, talking with each other requires perhaps one of the skills most lacking in contemporary American life. And that is the ability to "Just Listen."