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“Zeitgeist and the Berlin Wall” (Reprinted from The Vancouver Observer)

In communities, International Relations, Peace, Realtionship, TimeSpirits, World Work on November 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’m aware of not only the spirit of that time, but also a difficult-to-name energy at work around last month’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Zeitgeist is usually translated as the intellectual, ethical or political climate of a nation, the “mood of an era.” It is, quite literally, TimeSpirit, and I write the word in the same way that physicist and Jungian analyst Arnold Mindell does when he talks about a felt but invisible force having an impact on how we think and relate to one another. When I work in organizations or with couples, I sometimes feel the TimeSpirits of Racism or Homophobia, as well as the TimeSpirit of last year’s economic meltdown.

Twenty years ago, I followed the events in Berlin with a sense of excitement and dread. On the one hand, I was full a wild hope; on the other, the fear of a massacre along the lines of Tiananmen Square five months earlier. What prevented Berlin from becoming a bloodbath? Nobody knows, exactly. There may have even been something about Tiananmen Square that actually shifted the world’s awareness. But there was something different about the TimeSpirit in Berlin, which I believe helped to shape the final result. Many events led up to November 9, 1989—Hungary opening its border to Austria; East Germans flooding the West German embassy, refusing to return to the East; Erich Honecker’s resignation. And what some observers feel really made it possible: a mass demonstration in Leipzig a month earlier, which in turn was made possible by the Montagsdemonstrationen, or “Monday demonstrations” that preceded them.

Police, and the troops that were later called in, could have opened fire on the demonstrators. According to some reports, they were ordered to do so. But they did not. Why? What had shifted? One remembers the plea of Chinese students to the soldiers: Don’t shoot! Join us; we are your brothers and sisters! It wasn’t enough to turn the tide. And yet, five months later, halfway round the globe in Leipzig, when 70,000 protesters began to chant, “Wir sind das Volk!”“We are the people!”—something was different. And a month later, at the Berlin Wall, whatever the political, economic, and social factors at play, a TimeSpirit seemed to dictate that this would not end in the same way as Tiananmen Square.

Writer and medical intuitive Caroline Myss maintains that people in Eastern Europe simply decided to divest themselves of Communism. It was a shift in thought, in consciousness. And because there were enough of them doing it at the same time, nothing much else was needed to accomplish it. Zeitgeist. A sea-change. Something that, in the end, cannot be explained in any of the usual ways.

Last November, American voters elected the first black president in their history. Like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, it was one of those things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. As I watched President Obama being sworn into office in January, I was filled with the same kind of uneasy wonder I’d felt watching the Berlin Wall come down. Against all odds, beyond all the reasons given by political pundits, the inconceivable had actually happened.

Last month, when the Nobel Committee announced President Obama as the recipient of the Peace Prize, there was a kind of stunned silence at first, then criticism of the Committee’s decision because Obama had not “proven himself.” Again, I felt the presence of a TimeSpirit—something larger than political events or one man’s personality and charisma. Something that included people’s renewed sense of possibility and the ability to imagine an entirely different kind of future. Something far beyond political rhetoric: zeitgeist. As if the Nobel Committee were honouring not the man, but all that he has come to embody in this moment.

Obama, himself surprised, said, “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.” Aspirations held by people in all nations. Zeitgeist.

Not one man or one woman, one event, or one single turning point, but a gathering of consciousness, a TimeSpirit that when heard and headed is what can make all the difference in the world. And my hunch is that more than one person on the Nobel Prize Committee is aware of that.

It’s certainly what those gathered 20 years ago at the Berlin Wall found out.

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