There are many stories around at the moment about countries shunning international co-operations and hardening their borders. But in spite of our different languages and heritages, we all have more in common than we think. Regardless of whether we live in Norway or Namibia, we all face the same every-day problems and strive for similar goals.
Why do national borders exist?
Essentially a national border denotes a specific legal system and set of resources. Countries control their borders to protect access to these resources and defend the right to decide who can and can’t enter their territory. Countries brand themselves using a flag and a national anthem, and adopt a common language which enables its citizens to communicate with each other.
Common people, common problems
When defined in this way, national borders appear nothing more than artificial, administrative constructs. Perhaps there is more that unites us as people than simply our language and a flag?
Most of us want to meet that special someone who we can share our lives with. Quite aside from the emotional benefits, there are many financial rewards for spending life as a twosome. Marriage or legal partnership is recognised as a key structure in most societies. But cultures differ in how two people are encouraged to meet and get to know one another. In India arranged marriage is still common for some couples and getting into a relationship usually means intent to marry. In Southern Italy, people usually live with their parents until they get married but if they do meet someone, meeting their family means things are getting serious. In France there is no word for dating, the mere act of spending time with someone and being intimate means they are committed to that person. However different these approaches are, the desire to build that meaningful relationship is something common to us all.
How about when we want to end a relationship? Again, most countries have accepted the right of people to end their unions if they wish. Most western countries have accepted the divorce model where a couple can apply to legally no longer be married to one another. Some regimes are more liberal (in Japan couples don’t even have to go to court, a signed form suffices), other countries ask couples to wait two years of living apart before they can apply for a divorce. Divorce is illegal in Malta, but couples can obtain a legal separation on certain grounds.
Raising a family is something many of us across all different cultures aspire to do, but of course our desire to live in relative affluence means we need to balance work and childcare needs. In the UK, early years childcare is comparatively expensive but free schooling begins from 4 years and goes on until 3pm each day. In Germany, the childcare is considerably cheaper but free schooling starts two years later from 6 years and mostly only until lunchtime each day. In many cultures of course one parent still stays at home to raise the children, but they face a financial penalty if only one spouse can earn a salary. It is a difficult balance to strike, but one that citizens from every country try to get right every day.
Most of us will experience the loss of a loved one in our lives, but cultures have different ways of channeling their grief. The Irish hold a wake following a funeral which involves a lot of drinking and joking, and focuses on comforting surviving relatives and remembering the deceased with fondness. The Mongolians and the Tibetans are famous for their sky burials which leave the body of the deceased on a high unprotected place to be exposed to the elements and devoured by wildlife (signalling that death is simply part of the cycle of reincarnation). In South Korea, many families have the ashes of their loved ones compressed into turquoise, pink or black “death beads” which are then displayed in the home.
Regardless of which side of the map we live on, we are all striving for similar things and facing similar problems. As US politician John McCain once said: “our shared values define us more than our differences.”
If our life problems are essentially the same the world over, surely it makes sense for countries to cooperate with each other? The world faces problems which do not recognise international boundaries. Whether its issues related to climate change, migration and refugees or food security, international borders have little relevance. Common goals and targets are set and achieving these is of benefit to everyone.
However it is not just these major problems which should unite us. As citizens of the world, we should recognise that, while our solutions and responses may differ, people’s aspirations and struggles are essentially the same the world over. As author Joseph Fort Newton said, “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Let the bridge building begin.