Why we muck around with stories.
We spend our lives learning things the hard way. For many reasons. Our brains are busy with our own stuff. It’s an issue of trusting the source. We assume things that are happening or have happened don’t apply to us.
There’s no apparent value in use for the accumulated wisdom. Except for we often end up believing the stories of people whose motives we don’t understand—because they’re plausible stories (and we’re not so good with statistics.)
So each generation of humans must spend their entire lives learning what the last generation already knew. If only we spent more time getting to know our grandparents and ancestors better! That’s where the good stories are.
Two events of value this week—elections (in America) and the 34th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I cannot explain to you the context that surrounded certain things that happened in my family (or those of others) that got us where we are today, but it’s worth a try.
Every election my grandmother called right away, “Did you go to vote?” For her it was the big day, she wore the best dress to the polls. Her euphoria was not a powerful civic sense. Paola Cortellesi’s film ‘There’s Still Tomorrow’ shows what it was.
First submissive to her father and then to her husband, my grandmother changed her perception of herself on 2 June 1946. For her, as for the protagonist of the film, Delia, women’s right to vote meant ‘existence.’
For the first time, someone asked her what she thought.
And here’s where the parallels with Delia end. Because Giuliana, with her sweet smile, didn’t suffer in silence. In the film, Delia’s daughter is ashamed of her mother’s modesty. The ferocity of children who are still making sense of the world.
Many grandmothers suffered without saying a word. Until someone has the courage to confront the man of the family, “If you put your hands on Maria, I’ll call the police.” Perhaps that’s why many mothers followed a different path.
My mother had a profession that she loved. She read two newspapers a day. Though my father never told us how much he admired and loved her, he did. And so did we, despite how much her independent spirit meant more responsibility for us.
Cortellesi’s film brings us back to humble figures like my grandmother. They did not enter the history books, but made history. With dull men at their side, they raised girls who studied and taught their daughters independence.
We have since become visible, but we have a long way ahead.
I wish I could explain how much the words and stories my grandmother told me meant. I can’t. Because it takes a whole childhood of hanging out with someone when they hunch over the sawing machine while they make you your confirmation suit, or watching them as they roll out the dough—rough and thick like her hands—and you know the tagliatelle will taste amazing with the homemade ragù sauce.
That generation had seen the war up close, not through some screen. They rebuilt their homes, and cities, and companies, with their bare hands and not much more. And they understood the value of one vote (though the Electoral College system can disregard the will of the majority1.)
There’s value in their stories.
It’s been 34 years since the night that marked a turning point for the world. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. You could breathe happiness in the air, not only in the city, but throughout Europe. It was an explosive and contagious energy.
The fall was completely unexpected. World politics central figures themselves didn’t imagine that the wall was about to fall until a minute before it did. I remember my goose bumps as I watched on television.
What remains engraved in the memories are the images of the young people who climbed up helping each other, the pickaxes and hands that raised dust from the wall, the joy of a people finally freed from what for years was the symbol of the Cold War.
“I remember the emotion of the first time I went to the West and saw the colorful streets. And the food, what an exquisite taste. I also remember the first time I ate in an Italian restaurant, I found it hard to believe that such tasty things could exist. In my old life, for example, olive oil was available at the pharmacy only by prescription.”
Désirée, the first to cross the border
Two million people crossed the border in 3 days, putting an end to an era marked by opposition and struggle between the two hegemonic superpowers on the world stage. We rely on the words of those who have experienced all this firsthand—before, during, and after—for a commentary of what it felt like.
“The train returning from Berlin was packed, people even climbed out of the windows. They were all excited. There was an atmosphere of excitement and exhilaration in the air, but also of total disbelief.”
At that point, it was almost unimaginable that all those people had been walled on the other side for so long. It was hard to remember we were all on the same side—humanity.
“I still have the scars from the barbed wire. Those cuts I got trying to climb over the wall. I remember the barbed wire unrolling like a pipe, my trousers completely torn, me stuck, unable to move. A harlequin on an outdoor stage.”
Miriam, at the time of the Berlin Wall
Can you imagine what it must felt like as a young person to take a hammer to a physical symbol of repression?
“I was 16 years old, after seeing what was happening on TV I decided to go near the Wall and joined a group of people who were helping to tear it down. It was very exciting, we wanted to see life, and we wanted to be united again. It was sensational.”
People helping people.
“What has changed in our daily life is that now we can walk and continue straight, when before, 27 years ago, there was a terrible barrier between brothers here.”
If you’ve only known life on the other side of the wall, it’s not surprising to fear its crumbling.
“I was thirteen and I was at home, doing homework. On November 9, 1989, television announced that it was finally possible to cross the border. My mother suggested we go and have a look, but I refused, claiming I wanted to finish my homework. I was actually afraid that if we crossed the border they wouldn’t let us go back.”
A time for celebration.
“I returned four weeks later, the city was still celebrating, there was a unique euphoria that I have never experienced again in my life. After all, we found ourselves in front of a universal symbol: the wall that was broken, that was torn, that collapsed, represented the victory of democracy, of freedom.”
Culture is the lived experiences of these individuals. It includes the borrowed forms and ideas that helped individuals understand and articulate their experience in new ways. It’s carried forward by the interplay of storage, loss, and discovery of stories and artifacts. It evolves through circulation.
Through culture, we can answer fundamental questions about life, and make meaning. Its value is in use—to help us know ‘why’ things happen. And perhaps, in the not too distant future, to avoid them happening again.
Electoral College pros and cons.