Clarity is the moment we see without opening our eyes. – Unknown
Clarity is the ability to see the future without deferring to the past. – Robert Watson
The dictionary definition of clarity is a) the quality of being coherent and intelligible, and b) the quality of transparency or purity.
Absurd was the only word I could conjure from a hurricane of impressions assaulting my brain. My elbows rested on the top of a thick white wall a dozen feet in the air. Twelve feet high and nine inches wide, to be exact. The stark white partition was an imposing structure stretching as far as I could see in either direction.
The first concrete elements went into place on August 17, 1961. The year of my birth. I stared across a barren expanse to another wall, equal in size, shape, and just as formidable. How had the world come to this? Why were these substantial impediments to human travel necessary in the 20th century? Had not we defeated the barbarians at the gates and the need for walls?
According to my intelligence, these two thick and tall concrete barriers, plus electrified fences and fortifications, extended 28 miles (45 km), dividing the two parts of a city founded in 1237. Additionally, the Wall extended 75 miles (120 km) around the ground I now stood on. I was in jail.
Not content with the island experience, I needed to confront my jailors. I walked down a narrow set of metal steps to the end of the concrete. A break in the Wall allowed sparse traffic to and from my island. Two U.S. Army MPs stared at me disbelievingly as I walked past them into a lifeless 160-yard wide strip between the two twelve-foot white concrete dividers.
With a grim determination, I walked almost the distance of a football field to the center of the “death strip.” It was a belt of sand or gravel-covered land between the two main barriers of Berlin’s Wall. This “no man’s land” was under constant surveillance by armed guards from the east in watchtowers, who had orders to shoot anyone they saw trying to escape. But not enter. Nor stand in the middle and stare.
I unnerved them.
The soldier in the guard shack opposite “checkpoint” Charlie raised his binoculars, hoping to read my name and unit. I grinned and covered my nameplate. Frustrated, the soldier lowered his spy glasses. I dropped my hand. He raised his binoculars. I lifted my hand, hiding my identity. We played the cat-and-mouse game a couple more times before I grew bored. The guards in the tower, with their weapons at the ready, seem to enjoy the action. They rose to take in the spectacle of a peacefully defiant American soldier teasing their fascist tenure. I am sure that their daily roles in the lethal farce grew incessantly tedious over time.
I turned my gaze in the shooter’s direction. The East German tower guards were notoriously bad shots missing their fleeing targets by yards. Nobody missed by those margins aiming from an elevated perch. Their piss poor record spoke volumes about their humanity. Shooting women and children in the back as they ran for freedom lacked honor. No one wanted that memory running around in their head for a lifetime.
But I wasn’t a woman. Or a child. I was a large imposing young man in uniform. Unarmed. I was fair game for hunters. I let the tingly tension of their gaze wash over me. Their eyes bored into my flesh. Their intent was as clear as a bell. Still, something in me needed to experience the absurdity of the Wall and its inhumanity to man. And feel the hard stare of my enemy, only a trigger pull away from my demise. For me, the sharp jagged edges of reality are to be savored slowly, with intent. Satisfied with only dipping my toe into their dystopian nightmare, I nodded to my foes, signaling the end of my egress.
As I turned my back on the East German soldiers, a quote came to mind. “Do I want to be the sculptor or the clay?”
Instantly, I had clarity. I knew these walls would not stand for long. Less than five years later, the Berlin Wall crumbled under the weight of ideological absurdity. I am proud to have played a quiet part in its demise. My years staring down my adversary with seventy thousand nuclear weapons at the ready left a mark.
However, the point of my presence in West Berlin and beyond was to get the lay of the land, so to speak. My commanders believed boots-on-the-ground intelligence trumped all other means of data collection. Also, as humans, our best learning takes place engaged with and experiencing reality. Einstein said best: “experience is knowledge; everything else is information.” He also said, “experience is the only source of knowledge.” Try fully explain the photograph below. Do you want words? Or would you like to feel like you’re on top of the world?
Principal #1 of clarity is you must acquire knowledge, not information about your subject. Never depend on rumor, conjecture, or someone’s perception of reality. Judiciously source your background or research material from books, media, and the internet. In the end, proper knowledge is acquired by first-hand experience.
Our experiences shape our clarity and perception. Those dark days of ideological thrashing trying to provoke nuclear oblivion crafted and colored my mind’s lens. The stillness of my memory holds those days seared to my gray matter. Absent direct experience, I try to never form opinions about people, places, and things.
Now, Principal #2 of clarity comes into play. One of my four life maxims is “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” Therefore, I must always be careful to contextualize my past experiences to be able to see possible futures. I saw the dystopian swirl created by the Berlin Wall, and yet I could imagine its collapse.
I believe true “clarity is the ability to see the future without referring to the past.” The past does not necessarily always equal the future. We must be able to see the pivot point where change is not only possible but probably, as I did with the Berlin Wall.
Your past shaped you. Thus, it will always attempt to intrude on your present by coloring the lens of your clarity. But we can’t stay lost in a neverending loop of orthodoxy. That’s a tall order when we recall that pain and trauma leave scares. To press into our future, we must move beyond our cautionary bubble. When something hurts us, we have two options. We can become wounded or wise. The past’s hurts will fade like physical scars with time.
We must think differently, imagine, and envision anew to make our dreams come true. Looking up at our masthead photograph of the rock climber, you find clarity in action. Imagine for a moment the climber at the mountain’s base staring skyward at the daunting rock face. The challenge wasn’t too big for her. She did the climb. How about you?
Until next time. Travel safe.