The Walls We Build, The Walls We Tear Down

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” – Robert Frost, Mending Wall

I remember when the Berlin Wall started coming down. I remember where I was when it happened. The news on television. The cheering. The chipping and prying off of rock. The jubilation. The crowds at the Brandenburg Gate. Even in the intoxicating fog of my teenage self-involvement, I remember a deep sense of knowing the significance of the event. The wall was coming down.

East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

About two weeks ago, around midnight, I was standing at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. The scant remaining portions of the wall stood illuminated by streetlights, embellished with giant, concrete-panel-wide paintings, and gated to protect it from curious or thieving hands. A wall within a wall. Having been to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, having read the stories of bold escape: hiding within suitcases, curling into a ball behind car engines, tunneling though the earth; having studied the failed attempts, the murders, all of it was suddenly overwhelming. The remaining wall, so tall, so impermeable, seemed to have absorbed the heaviness of the suffering it had caused. The division of families and loved ones, the barrier between a life of opportunity and a life of limits. To see it stretch for even 1.3 kilometers hinted at its infinite span, its cold utilitarianism. Keep people in, keep people out.

The seat used in Tunnel 57, which was used to help 57 East Berliners to escape. Now on display at the Checkpoint Charlie museum. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
A piece of the Berlin Wall, on display at the Checkpoint Charlie museum. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I was lucky enough to be at East Side Gallery with a native Berliner, an amazing woman who talked openly about her experience growing up near the wall, in East Berlin, under the thumb of the GDR. She was eight years old when the wall came down. “It was too late for my parents,” she said, “but it changed my life.” She explained that if the wall remained, she wouldn’t have had the opportunities she’d had, wouldn’t have been able to attend the university she did, wouldn’t have been able to work at the NGO she works for today.

Art at the East Side Gallery in Berlin. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

There’s been a lot of talk in America these days about building walls.

For some, it would keep out a perceived undesirable, and retain and protect a perceived good.

In Mending Wall by Robert Frost, he details how walls break down, how he and his neighbor meet each spring to put back the stones that have fallen away, his neighbor remarking twice, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

All of this gives me pause. What kind of neighbors are we, if we want to keep those in need, out? The truth is, if your children were hungry, if food were scarce, if you couldn’t find a job to support your family and opportunity were only a wall away, you would find a way around it, no matter how daunting or dangerous. And with your deep, personal understanding of the heaviness the wall invoked, you would support others in your situation, perhaps even help them scale the wall or tunnel beneath it. It would seem to be the only choice you had. To abet the suffering you witnessed would be unconscionable. You might not be able to live with the shame.

My husband and I recently spent an entire summer mending, power washing and staining a massive wooden fence around our yard. We loved that fence; it gave us a sense of privacy and security and kept our dogs from running. But what were we really keeping out? Bunnies? They, and the crabgrass always found a way. We lived in the house for nearly 20 years, and when we moved out, we barely knew our neighbors. In retrospect, we were probably not the sort of neighbors I would hope we could be. I had to see the remnants of the Berlin Wall to realize that.

I wonder why no one has ever noted that in building a wall, we essentially construct a cage for ourselves. Think about it. No matter how large the area, no matter how many checkpoints or gates are constructed, a wall is still a cage. Even if it could, a dog wouldn’t mend its own kennel; they’re smart enough to know there is so much good on the other side.

Throughout Europe, I found walls built merely to keep the proverbial apple orchards from the pine trees, as in Frost’s poem. Vines crept over them. Weather eroded them. Humans painted them. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Eventually, they all fall down.


Graffiti on a wall in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Conversation in all of the eight countries I visited eventually turned to the Syrian refugee crisis, whether to allow them in, or somehow wall them out. Police patrolled the trains. Passport control was again common within the E.U.

I think of the little boy from Aleppo, now made famous by a single portrait. If you could prevent his suffering, wouldn’t you? If you could have saved his brother’s life, wouldn’t you have done so? We’ve become so remarkably good at dehumanizing human issues, it seems we’re willing to be appalled by what we see on the news, willing to be horrified by a photograph, but unwilling to share the burden of the suffering, so we build walls. And in the process we keep out what human decency calls upon us to embrace with compassion. I daresay if someone wants to work in the slaughterhouses I would never step in, in the farm fields I’m too weak to harvest, let them. Better, let them try for and secure any job for which they are ready. If someone is thirsty, let them have some of my water. If someone is hungry, let them have my food. The truth is, I have too much of all of it, and plenty to share. I don’t fear that our delicate systems will crumble, because eventually, like all walls, they will anyway. Likewise, if our people need to cross real or imagined walls to get affordable medicine, in the name of human decency, they should be able to without reprocussion.

Posts: remnants of the inner wall, in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Eventually, they all fall down, these walls. They become monuments or art galleries, or are sold by the ounce to tourists. Haven’t we yet become wise enough not to build another wall in the first place?

To read the entire poem by Robert Frost, go to Mending Wall.


Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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