“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
When President Ronald Reagan issued that challenge in 1987, it wasn’t a new battle cry. The people of Soviet-controlled East Germany — and really, the global community — had been pleading for the barrier to come down since it was built in 1961. It was a time of reconstruction for Germany after World War II, but it wasn’t a healthy reconstruction. It was divisive.
The Berlin Wall caused conflict, discord, dissension and disunity.
Barriers Have a Kryptonite
The Berlin Wall physically separated people in Germany, but today there are many invisible barriers that separate us. These barriers — like stereotypes, hatred, assumptions, addictions, fear, differences of beliefs, miscommunications and misunderstandings — keep people from each other.
Barriers stand in the way of true community and real relationships.
Like physical barriers, these ideological barriers are built brick by brick. Sometimes we build them slowly, without even realizing it. Assumptions, mistakes and mistruths pile on top of each other year after year, and then suddenly, there’s a wall that keeps us from true friendship. Other times, we know we’re building barriers, yet we keep building them because we live in fear and try to protect ourselves from something we don’t actually know.
But fear of the unknown isn’t assuaged by more unknown. It’s solved and lessened by more knowledge — and more listening. Barriers are torn down by stories.
The Power of Stories
By very definition, barriers are strong and meant to be impenetrable. But they don’t stand a chance against stories.
Hearing stories and sharing stories help us build bridges to each other and strengthen our communities. When we listen to someone else share their story, we realize the fears we once thought were based on fact are actually based on untrue assumptions and misunderstandings. We thought one thing, but when we hear someone’s story, we often realize we were wrong.
And this isn’t just anecdotal evidence. Neuroscience shows us stuff happens in our brains when we hear a story that actually makes us feel emotionally closer to the one sharing their story. Higher levels of the oxytocin in our brains when we listen to stories raises our level of empathy for the storyteller.
In listening to stories, we not only learn more facts about someone else, we also gain more empathy for them. And suddenly the barrier weakens. It starts crumbling, and soon, as we keep listening to stories and experiencing oxytocin and empathy, that barrier is gone. As we correct the misunderstanding and the mistruths, barriers are torn down.
Love takes over.
All because of stories.
Tear Down Your Wall
The Berlin Wall stood as a barrier in Germany for more than a quarter century. It divided people and kept real, true relationships from happening and growing.
It took two more years for the Berlin Wall barrier to be dismantled and loose its power. But eventually it did, and the stories that came out of East Germany were slowly discovered. Those stories forged the path for Germany to become one united country once again in 1990.
You might not have physical barriers built up around you, equipped with barbed wire and armed guards, but you might have built some barriers that are keeping you from true friendship — and you don’t even realize it.
The solution? Listen to some stories and share yours. Let empathy happen in your brain and in your mind and even in your heart. Don’t entertain isolation and separation any longer. Declare war on it. Seek to build real, true relationships. Tear down the barriers. Strengthen your community. Be the bridge. Initiate peace.
Be a Story Warrior.