Black and White World

There is a concept in Buddhism and Hinduism referred to as non-duality. The mind, by it’s very nature, is constantly engaged in making distinctions. Our mind thinks in metaphors, so we rarely know something as it is, but rather as it is when compared to something else. This leads to thinking in dualities, which in turn leads to judgments, which usually aren’t conducive to leading an enlightened existence. Dualistic thinking is responsible for the great divide in the world over hot button issues - and is responsible for our negative impressions of people who hold contrary opinions on those hot button issues. The concepts of duality and non-duality are worthy of our attention, as is understanding the advantages of not looking at the world in terms of dualities. Dualistic thought allows us the dangerous convenience of judging ourselves based on comparison to others. The great German Philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe had the right idea about judging ourselves by our own ideals and behavior, rather than by comparison to others, when he noted that: “Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.”

Let’s examine dualistic thinking in the way mankind understands best, through stories.

To think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth. The problem is to see reality as it is.

    - Thich Nhat Hanh

When I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world . . . I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress . . . and it chanced that the direction of my scientific studies, which led wholly toward the mystic and the transcendental, re-acted and shed a strong light on this consciousness of the perennial war [within me]. With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.

    - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
    - Walt Whitman

If you are involved in a creative endeavor, say painting a canvas, composing a song, writing a play, a poem ... a sermon - you can hardly do better than seeding your creation with the mythology of the Roman God Janus.

Janus is a gold mine of symbolic imagery.

His defining physical feature you recall, was that he had a face on either side of his head, representing duality.

Roman Gods were often multipurpose, representing a variety of concepts. Janus was used to symbolize change and transition, beginnings and ends, and interestingly, was the God of doors and gates, the passage from one place to another, the divine connectivity between opposing dualities.

Part of the fascination with Janus is that dualities are an ever present part of life. Hot/cold, up/down, good/bad, black/white, beginning/end, life/death. We understand a thing by imagining it’s opposite. 

There is a city that once represented Janus’ duality in brick and mortar. For a generation it was the most fascinating city in the world, representing the two faces of opposing political and economic ideology that dominated the world.  

Divided in half by it’s famous Wall, Berlin served as the nexus for competing economic and political models, a place where the battle over abstractions became terrifyingly real. Two alternate realities existed side by side, allowing the fruits of competing ideologies to be compared in a vivid fashion that no other location on earth allowed. Each side believed that their philosophy was so superior to the other that they armed themselves to the teeth to defend their point of view. 

Berlin’s dualistic structure was the product of a cold war, created in reaction to dueling political and economic philosophies.

I think most of you know the story of how Berlin was divided, how the wall was created by the East German government and their Soviet over seers. As the distinctions between life in the East and West became ever more dramatic, East Germans began to  flee to West Berlin in droves, voting with their feet. The Wall was built to eliminate this temptation, and was marketed by the communists as a barrier to protect East Germans from the consumeristic debauchery of the west. Western leaders told us the Wall was proof that eastern Europe was a totalitarian state.

In my childhood I had been told by my government that communism was a threat to mankind. It was Godless, it would take all your money, it had the bomb, and if we didn’t stand strong they would either take over the world or destroy it.

Those of you who went to school in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s, practicing hiding under your desk in A-bomb drills, know that I don’t exaggerate. Powerful stuff for a young mind.

But the Vietnam War changed everything. Marketed as a war of good against evil, we were told that if we didn’t battle the communists there, a domino effect would occur that would allow communism to spread throughout the world. 

I was the age to be ticketed for Vietnam, and when the secret Pentagon Papers were published, showing the depth of the lies and bloody deceit we had been fed about the conflict in Vietnam, it was only natural to consider if the government could be trusted to tell the truth about anything, especially regarding the nature of our enemy of choice, communism.

When I got the opportunity to visit East Berlin before the wall fell, I thought to myself that I would have a chance to compare a communist society to the picture our government and our media had painted of it. Would it be as bad as we were told, or could it be closer to the worker’s paradise the communists insisted it was?

Getting to East Berlin was a bit of a challenge in 1986. One could not just drive across the East German border, cruise down the autobahn to Berlin and drive through the wall.

As a civilian employee of the State Department, I had to get written permission from the administrators of East Berlin, the Soviets. I was given written orders, in Russian and English, and had to take a special train that left Frankfurt for the long trip to Berlin. The trip was designed to take place at night, apparently to keep travelers from viewing border installations, from observing the condition of the countryside and towns.

When we approached Berlin, armed guards came aboard and checked our transit papers and passports before we were allowed to continue. We were told to keep our curtains closed and not to look out the windows, not to even consider taking pictures. As we slowed to pass through the wall I couldn’t help myself. I peeked out and saw barbed wire, men with machine guns, viscous looking dogs, towers, all bathed in a sinister yellow light. I quickly pulled the curtain back. This quick glimpse brought home the reality that these were people who quite literally killed those who didn’t follow the rules. We learned later that the day before we visited a man in East Berlin had been shot and killed trying to cross the wall to freedom in the west.

Berlin is an exceptionally large city, not just in terms of population, but in terms of area. I guess I had expected a sense of containment, with the wall visible from all vantage points. In fact, the area within the wall had lakes, and fields, woods, and public gardens. In the city center the wall was a constant presence, slicing through the city blocks like a wound, but elsewhere one could drive through neighborhoods and areas that seemed almost rural. You could forget about the wall, and then suddenly, rounding a corner, it would appear, and you would quickly be reminded of the nature of where you were.

It soon became apparent that, in the flesh, the wall was not as it appeared in your mind’s eye. It was really two walls, running parallel, with about 60 to 90 feet of space between them. That space was filled with raked sand to show footprints, guards patrolling with dogs, lookout towers manned with armed sentries, and in places there were minefields and tripwires attached to automatic weapons,. Escaping wasn’t as simple as climbing over a wall, you had to climb two walls, both with rounded tops that made it impossible to grip, you must dodge dogs, mines, wires, and snipers. It was almost impossible to cross, yet people still tried it, usually with mortal consequences.

We visited the wall on the West German side, where we could climb an overlook and look down into the no man’s land between the two halves of the wall. We could see the defenses and could almost reach out and touch guards who walked by on patrol with their dogs. Sightseers would try to engage the guards, but they were openly hostile, obviously chosen for their commitment to the cause. 

The wall on the west German side was painted with graffiti and many stunningly detailed and graphic works of political art. Just before we visited East Berlin I read an article in an American weekly newsmagazine by a writer who visited the city. He wrote of  citizens in the East picnicking in the shade of the wall. While looking across the death zone of the space between the walls, while literally leaning on the wall, we learned from a guide that on the East German side, if you got within 50 feet of the wall you could be shot on sight. Already skeptical of what my government told me, I began to wonder at the veracity of what our corporate media told us. I later confirmed that you could get nowhere near the wall in East Berlin, making the writer either a liar, or immensely gullible, neither a good trait for a reporter.

West Berlin, it turned out, was one of the most vibrant, colorful places on the face of the earth. The isolation from the rest of free Germany, being surrounded by enemies who wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth, and literally being walled in, caused the citizens of West Berlin to seize each day passionately. The shops were full, there were constant art and music fairs, cultural events, and street life of all sorts was ever present. Consumerism was rampant, with countless options for food, drink, goods, services at every turn. Nightlife was famous for it’s depth, breadth, and sometimes, it’s depravity.

A westerner could not just amble into East Berlin on a whim. Again there was paperwork, and you could only visit with an approved tour group. Arrangements were made and we boarded a bus and passed through a series of security points at the famous Checkpoint Charlie.

The Checkpoint was filled with grim East german guards, who indulged themselves in scaring us witless as we passed through the nondescript building and emerged on the East side of the wall to board the bus.

You recall in the Wizard of Oz that Oz was colorful, the farm in Kansas black and white. In Berlin, the vibrancy and color of West Berlin could not prepare you for the East. East Berlin was a black and white city. I don’t mean this figuratively. It was literally a visually monochromatic environment. Little greenery, none of the colorful neon signs and shiny autos of the west, none of the colorful clothing. The building were grey, plain, and unadorned. But it was worse than an absence of color. It was a city devoid of passion, devoid of joy, devoid of humanity. We were quickly to learn that it’s pervasive human qualities were studied indifference and paranoia.

You could see it in the posture of the people, in the lack of interaction, in the slumped way they walked. They looked beaten.

We were on a bus and we had a tour guide. Soon after we passed through Checkpoint Charlie our guide pointed out a car behind us with four shabbily dressed men in it. He told us that they were the requisite spies who would follow us all day. By the standards of my world that seemed impossible. I am a goof from a little town in Illinois. Why would an East German spy follow me around? But we were playing by their rules now, on their turf, and this was how it worked. Part of the game was that they wanted us to know we were being watched, wanted us to feel paranoid.

We visited museums and monuments, all fascinating, but all shabby, down at the heels, all seemed like something you would have seen in America 40 years earlier. We saw old apartment blocks, still riddled with bullet holes decades after the war, where, we were told, several entire families might share a single communal bathroom. We saw new apartment blocks 20 stories tall, the concrete walls a spider’s web of cracks and crumbling mortar. It turns out that there were virtually no building supply shops in East Germany so workers would steal, for their own purposes, a significant portion of the raw materials of any project they worked on. That meant the concrete for a tall building would have substantially less stone and mix than it should have, making each building a candidate for structural failure soon after it’s completion. We saw workers using scaffolding made out of bamboo and twine to cling to the side of a building they were repairing. Bamboo and twine scaffolding in a city promoted by it’s leaders as the showcase of the socialist East.

At one point we were in our bus at a stoplight, all of us taking in the sights, a dozen conversations going on, when I glanced at a street car, a tram, that had pulled next to us. Our bus was easily identified as containing visitors from the west so the folks on the the tram knew where we were from. In contrast to our bus, not a single conversation was going on on in the tram, almost everyone looked straight ahead. I noticed a couple of people take a quick look at our bus then immediately looked forward at the seat in front of them. One lady couldn’t help herself, she was staring at our bus, at the laughter and carrying on, and she had the most heartbreaking look on her face that I have ever seen. I could read her mind. She was noting that we soon would go back through the checkpoint, western passports in hand, to freedom. Should she try to cross the same 100 feet or so, she would be shot and killed. She was stuck in the world’s largest prison, she knew it, and our carefree bus mocked her imprisonment.

When East Germany finally collapsed it was discovered that one out of every six East Germans informed for the secret police, in many cases informing on friends, family, and even spouses. The folks on the tram couldn’t betray their thoughts to their seat mates for obvious reasons. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you and East Germany was the proof.

We had time to wander the streets on our own for a bit. We went for a meal and discovered that there was one kind of almost inedible bratwurst, one kind of flat beer available. The choices for both were almost limitless less than a mile away. The food here was bland, awful, but plentiful, and shockingly inexpensive.

I went to the restroom and a man brushed my shoulders as I left, in the sad ritual I was surprised existed in the worker’s paradise. I reached in my pocket and handed him a deutchmark. The man reacted effusively, actually followed me into the restaurant, bowing and thanking me repeatedly. It was embarrassing in a way, and I was terribly uncomfortable with the whole transaction. For a moment I wondered if he was mocking me. East German deutchmarks were made of aluminum, were almost weightless, and were worthless to the rest of the world. Then I realized I had inadvertently given him a West German deutchmark, rather than the worthless east german mark. The value of the coin that excited him so was worth thirty American cents.

We then went to a gigantic department store, advertised as one of the largest in the world. It was huge in the way Marshal Fields in downtown Chicago is. It was divided into departments, as the name would infer. You could only enter a department if you had a small, official hand basket, but there weren’t enough to go around so you had to wait until someone left. This meant that you had to stand in line each time you wanted to enter a different part of the store and wait until a basket freed up. This is the national past time of a socialist country, waiting in line for something that may or may not be available at the end of the line.

We quickly learned that, like the restaurant food, almost all of the products in East Berlin were spectacularly poorly made. As we examined the merchandise it was obvious it all would break or decay soon after it was purchased. Unemployment didn’t officially exist in the east, so jobs were essentially guaranteed. In socialist East Germany if you did your job well you got paid a set amount. If you did your job poorly you were paid the same amount. If you work long hours you get paid a set amount. If you have no work ethic you get the same amount. So it was a nation where there was no incentive to do your job well, every official job was done poorly, and the merchandise created reflected this.

We purchased a few trinkets as souvenirs, the clerk put them in a paper sack, we left the department, and the bottom promptly tore out of the paper bag clattering our purchases loudly on the floor.

We noticed several small shops that were almost empty of merchandise. We peeked through the window of one small shop and saw a few cans of condensed milk on a shelf next to a bucket of tiny potatoes and some boxes of rice. That was it. Occasionally you would see a shop with a long line outside the door. The guide later told us that some food item or goods that aren’t always available almost certainly had unexpectedly turned up, and that people in East Germany, on seeing a line outside of a shop, queue up before even knowing what is available. If there is a line they presume it is probably something they won’t get a chance to buy for a long time, so they line up for anything.  They almost certainly could sell what waits at the end of the line on the black market for a welcome profit. The communists had developed a society where survival relied on developing a tolerance for queuing up in a line.

What few cars there were on the street were Trabants, communism’s answer to the VW bug. It’s doors and fenders were made out of a plastic created from resin and wool. It had a two stroke engine, essentially the same as a lawn mower. When they put gas in it, they had to add oil to the gas tank, then rock the car back and forth to mix the gas and oil. There was a several year wait for a Trabant in the worker’s paradise, a long wait to spew carbon by the boatload into the atmosphere. The air in East Berlin most of the year was a toxic stew of the poison of two stroke motors and the ubiquitous grey smoke of the coal burning stoves that provided almost all heating in East Germany. Bleak humor was a fixture in East Germany. How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill the tank.

As we walked the streets we noted that very few people interacted with other people. People walked alone or in pairs, often with eyes pointed downward. On the few occasions we tried to engage people in conversation they scampered away before we could open our mouths. Our guide had told us that the locals could tell from a distance that we were westerners by the quality of our clothes. Not wanting trouble from the agents they knew would be following us, they gave us a wide berth.

On the western side of Berlin we had visited the Brandenburg Gate, long recognized as the symbol of the city. It is so iconic we decided to get as close as we could to the gate on the east German side, and, turning a corner, could see it in the distance. A man in a leather coat suddenly appeared, looked me straight in the eyes, and communicated that we should not go down that street, should go no closer to the Gate. In a city where no one tries to attract your gaze, where getting eye contact with someone rarely happens, it was jarring to have someone stare me down. The Brandenburg Gate, you see, was blocked by a section of the Berlin Wall, closing the passage between the two halves of the city, making the Brandenburg Gate, which once served as the symbol of Berlin, a forbidden place on the east side of the wall. This provided an ironic symbol of another sort for divided Berlin. Janus, the God of dualities and gates and doors, was surely taking note.

At one point back on the bus someone asked the guide what the objects on the top corner of almost every building. He told us they were cameras. It turned out that almost every public activity was being recorded, not so secretly, by the government. The complete disregard for hiding them served a purpose. We are always watching you was the message, and the thought of Orwell’s Big Brother was inescapable. Of all the things we saw this was the most disconcerting. A permanent record of everyone’s behavior was being recorded. It was something out of science fiction, something terrifying, something that brought on feelings of violation. This was tangible proof of the Orwellian nature of socialist society.  It was no wonder the locals would have nothing to do with us, the inevitable recording would have put them at risk forever more. From that moment on we constantly looked upward, scanning for the ever present spy cameras.

When it came time to leave at the end of the day, we were visiting a large park that served as a monument to the Soviet soldiers that had died defeating the Nazis. We had explicit orders on when we must leave the city and return to the west and as we gathered to re board the bus, the guide was getting anxious about the lateness of the hour. As you might imagine, in East Berlin, if you were told to be somewhere at a certain time, you followed the rules or else.

Once on the bus, ready to leave, it was obvious that there were two empty seats. The guide and his helpers frantically checked out the immediate area, looking for our missing comrades with no success. He enlisted a few of us to check out parts of the park, again without success. The guide was beside himself with fear that something had happened to the pair, that we wouldn’t get back to Checkpoint Charlie at the appointed time and he would lose his job or worse. I guess he felt he had no choice, so he walked over to the ever present state security guys that had followed us all day. We had pretended to ignore each other, but the charade had to be suspended. There were more than 50 people on the bus and four security men in the car. The guide explained that we were missing some of our group. Before the guide could describe them, the man behind the wheel immediately noted that we were missing an African American sergeant and his young son. He sent his men off and they returned with them in a matter of minutes.

How could they have known who was missing and where they were when none of us on the bus had the foggiest idea where they were?

They couldn’t make a paper bag or an edible bratwurst, but this was a country that excelled at spying.

East Germany was ostensibly a Marxist society with Marxist Ideals. Those ideals were rooted in the concept of having a centralized government that served as an arbiter of fairness in matters of resources, opportunities, and rewards. In practice it was nothing more than a perverse client state of the Soviets, and East Germany’s professed Ideals were a charade, just as were the professed Marxist ideals of the Soviets. They spent little time working on those ideals, and vast amounts time obsessing over their rivals.

Berlin was a remarkable city of duality. But, it is important to note that the socialist east wasn’t bad in comparison to our system - it was dreadfully bad all on it’s own.

The fall of East Germany in 1989, and subsequent collapse of the socialist empire showed the world that the face they tried for so long to present to the world was not their true face, their true face was the repressive, totalitarian state I saw on my visit. 

East Berlin made it easy for westerners to look in a mirror and feel they were looking at a vision of righteousness.

A central connection between my East Berlin visit and this morning’s homily was our astonishment that the East German government had the Orwellian audacity to surreptitiously videotape the citizenry. It confirmed what we had long been told -  that in communist countries you were guilty until proven innocent, that the government could spy on and record your most intimate moments without probable cause or rule of law, that you were being watched constantly to keep you in line, to keep you fearful. It was unimaginable to us that a society could become a police state with cameras on the corner of every building. Thank God, we thought at the time, we live in a country where such a thing could never happen.

Fast forward 20 years. As you know, our country has become a veritable 24 hour a day reality show, with cameras quite literally everywhere. As we go through our daily life we encounter a hundred fold more cameras than were on the buildings in East Berlin, we are each recorded dozens of times a day. And not just outside in the streets as in East Berlin, but in every store, every office we visit, everywhere, every when. I find it astonishing that we so quickly embraced the technology we were once so appalled by.

One fine day, not long after the terrible Columbine school murders, I went to work and discovered that we were going to put security cameras in the school, and since I am in charge of technology, it was to be my project.

I wanted to cry.

Security companies had quickly deduced that no school administrator wants to be known as the educator who failed to protect children from the next Columbine.  They had just the product to leverage that observation to great effect.  The orders for cameras poured in from all over America. 

I wanted nothing to do with the project, but I thought of Columbine, and I thought of my desire to eat and have a roof over my head, and I facilitated the installation of security cameras in the school. I had sleepless nights as feared I had become that which I viewed with disdain. I had been repulsed by East Germany’s use of security cameras to spy on their citizens and now I was installing security cameras to record our students. Not to spy, I told myself, but to ensure the safety of the students - a notion that almost certainly is what the East German security apparatus would have told any citizen of East Berlin foolish enough to question the cameras there.

Two days after we turned the cameras on I was called to an office to help find some video from an incident in the hallway. One of the few black students in the school had complained that he had been roughed up in the hallway. I listened in the office as three white students denied having done anything to the black student. They were sincere, they were looking the school officials in the eye, passionately professing their innocence. I would have bet my house that they were telling the truth.

I got on the computer, found the camera, located the proper time frame and played the video of the hallway. It vividly showed the three white kids walk up to the black student from behind, knock him into the lockers and rough him up, then run away laughing.

I was heart sick at how comfortably, how convincingly they had lied. But the camera didn’t lie. They were guilty as sin, and they were guilty of a racially provoked attack on an innocent. They had showed one face to their peers, another face to their elders.

So you see my conundrum. The technology I was appalled at facilitating, the technology I saw as a tool of repressive institutions, a technology I feel violates our constitutional rights, wasn’t used to create criminals out of innocents, but rather helped catch the worst kind of scoundrels in it’s first few days of use. I was forced to ask myself if security cameras are bad because they were used by a totalitarian government, or are they bad on their own? I was forced to consider the tipping point between pragmatism and compromising the ideals that make you what you are. What, I wondered, is the point that you become something other than what you believe yourself to be?

This past month, England, our closet ally, and one of the four countries charged with overseeing Berlin during the years of the Berlin Wall, announced plans to install security cameras inside of 20,000 private residences. England, already with more security cameras per capita than any other country in the world, will now monitor the behavior of government designated troubled families in their own homes.

We don’t have it easy in a UU church. We rarely deal in certainties. Our world is rarely black and white. Our mission is to do our best to see the world as it really is, not in ways that are convenient and tidy. So our challenge, as it is most Sundays, is to consider, rather than resolve, a significant issue of the spirit. 

There is a troubling tendency in this day and age to judge ourselves and our culture by comparison to other people and cultures. Rather than examine our behavior and that of our culture on their own, we examine them in the context of our adversaries. If we view our behavior as superior to theirs, then we are superior. We are number one.

But our adversaries tell us nothing about ourselves. Orwellian East Germany told us nothing about ourselves. The fact that their institutional behavior was appalling doesn’t automatically make ours good. Only our own behavior can tell us anything about ourselves.

I don’t for a moment suggest the inadequacies of the west compare to the horrors of Eastern Europe, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that we consider our own behavior, not our partner in duality.

The recent fault lines that have been exposed in the framework of our own political and economic system via the collapse and bailout of Wall Street, the ensuing economic turmoil that affects all Americans, the exposure of a system rigged to favor the wealthy and connected, a lunatic war of political expediency, the revelations of state sanctioned torture, the casual suspension of habeas corpus, the alleged recording of every single phone call and electronic message sent in the U.S., and, of course, the security cameras monitoring our every move, create doubt about the true face of our culture, the culture that once stared across the Wall at East Berlin with righteousness and disdain.

Both the capitalistic west and the socialistic east viewed themselves as mankind’s best hope, and viewed the other with contempt and often realized threats of violence. Both drew conclusions about themselves based on the behavior of their opponents, rather than their own behavior. Both have received their comeuppance for this lack of introspection and humility, for viewing the world through the prism of dualities rather than seeing the interdependence, the sameness, of all of existence.

Consider these words by Bulleh Shah, an 18th century Sufi Scholar from what is now Pakistan.

Remove duality and do away with all disputes;
The Hindus and Muslims are not other than He.
Deem everyone virtuous, there are no thieves.
For, within every body He himself resides.
How the Trickster has put on a mask!

Bulleh Shah saw that viewing life as a series of encounters with competing dualities puts us at risk of the fate of Janus, presenting one face to the world, another to the mirror. 

With apologies to Janus and Dr. Jekyll, I am quite sure that man must be one, not two.

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