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Monday, May 3, 2010

Good Bye, Lenin

Dreams die slowly. Illusions even more so. We want to believe what we want to believe. We want to hold on to functional lies and implausible explanations for as long as possible. So goes a part of the premise of "Good Bye, Lenin," a German film I only, finally watched last night. Looking in from outside, or looking back in hindsight, it is impossible not to notice the false foundation upon which East German Socialism was constructed. And yet, when it is the reality in which you're stuck, the world where you must make your way, find a place, utilize your talents, entrust your idealism, when it is the only place to live, when there are no choices, no apparent or attainable options, you find a way to rationalize, to construct your own reality within the external one. You find a way to make sense of what can't make sense, to understand the inexplicable. Not unlike growing up in a dysfunctional family. In fact, we've often observed that all of Eastern Europe and the USSR were just one big crazy collection of dysfunctional families under the umbrella of an uber-family, also nuts from its core. In a world that makes no sense, you must make sense of it for yourself. That's what I did as a child in a nutso family and that is what millions of citizens within Socialism did their whole lives. To be sure, some dissented, opted out, became resisters. That community in Poland, which I know best, came together just enough to lead that country beyond State Socialism (or as sometimes, more honestly known, State Capitalism). In East Germany, later in 1989, emboldened by the success of the Solidarity movement and free elections in Poland, thousands eventually took to the streets and by sheer force of will, broke down the Berlin Wall. Good Bye, Lenin tells the story of one family, one woman who had made her uneasy peace with the system, invested her all in it, captive to its ridiculous premises and most high-minded ideals. This is not a movie review. But what I'd like to suggest is central to the plot. It is hard to give up even the most unhealthy of illusions. They become us. We wed ourselves to ridiculous strategems as the only means of moving through the world with any kind of success at all. Becoming a low level civil servant or bureaucrat in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, DDR) was one such path of least resistance. One could still feel pride in personal accomplishment, in one's larger contributions to society. That's how we get stuck. Feeling our way along a narrow path, densely forested on both sides, one set of messages, one way only for viewing what comes next, where we're headed. I personally don't view it so much as stupid, or immmoral, as pathetic. Overflowing with the pathos of limited vision, limited energy, limited opportunities. Which leads me back once more to an expression of immense respect, admiration, and gratitude for those who saw the forest and the trees and yet again, what lay beyond. The dissidents like Michnik and Kuron in Poland, the clever journalists, the quiet unsung heroes who resisted in place, who refused to "take this hell for their heaven" (as Dante said), the journalists who found ways to tell the truth: for all who insisted on embracing an expansive view. Today, May 3, is Constitution Day in Poland. Their constitution is almost as old as ours. Granted, they weren't given the sovereignty to exercise its provisions for democratic self-rule, being carved up for over one hundred years by Russia, Germany, and Austria from the late 1700's until 1918. And then again, by the Nazi's during World War II and by the USSR from 1945 until 1989. Celebrating Constitution Day in Poland must also include paying respects to these more recent courageous and visionary, and expansive, generous-hearted individuals who chose not to respect the reality of their reality during the communist period, who looked beyond themselves and the present moment, who were always drawn by an horizon rather than limited by the known world. Those dissidents who made today's holiday a real celebration again. To you, to you, I lift my glass today and trust that thousands of others do too. Do you even realize what all you've done? Changed history. Yes, I think you know it. Now, drink it in!

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