A Quick Thought on the Berlin Wall and the Distortion of Human Memory

This summer, I realized that I had spent more time living away from Washington, DC than I spent actually living there (6 years). It gave me a minor existential crisis. It was hardly the type of existential crisis that led me to lease an expensive car on credit or go on some barefoot walkabout in the Smokies, but some minute form of reckoning nonetheless.

This afternoon, I found out (thanks to my colleague Mimi, again) that the Berlin Wall has now officially been gone for as long as it stood (28 years). I’ve never even been to Berlin, and learning this fact nearly shut down my brain for a minute. I can only imagine that this should give the world an existential crisis. Can we, as Westerners, conceive of a planet without the footprint left by the iron curtain, and in microcosm, that wall?

I found it strange how quickly my span of formative years in DC came to mind when I discovered this milestone for Berlin that, unlike my personal coming-of-age, most people actually care about. But, the personal is political. Envisioning the type of person I would be had I not taken a chance to moved to Washington in 2005 is impossible, as is trying to imagine the current physical or mental state of Germany, Europe, and political geography in general if the DDR had pursued some alternate course of action in 1961. Both epiphanies are similarly remarkable, too, because of the tricks that our minds play on us – time is both an abstraction and a distortion. To me, the six years I spent in DC felt insurmountably longer than the six years I’ve spent between Long Beach and Knoxville. I have many theories as to why, some personal and others easy enough to ascertain for anyone who has taken Psychology 101.

To Berlin natives (many of whom have been depositing genuinely fascinating replies on this twitter thread), those 28 years must have felt like a solid eternity.  For a whole generation, life was always and would always be like this. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear an East German genuinely shocked at how relatively fast these past 28 years have passed. Either way, this makes me feel even worse for never having made it to Berlin, especially when I was a young professional in DC who occasionally had enough time and money scraped together in order to make that happen.

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Four preserved panels from the Berlin Wall set up for a public exhibition in North Jakarta. (via the Jakarta Post).

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