I was sitting with two beloved twenty year olds at dinner recently, catching up with one another’s lives. Their stressful work lives, bad bosses, another week gone by. Then I asked, “So this threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads—how are you internalizing that?”
Both of them shrugged and kept eating. “In a way, it would be easier,” one of them said. “We’d all just die. I mean, it would suck, but it would be over . . . ”
This person always leans towards cynicism, so I looked to the other one, with her sunny side of the street personality, for a reality check. She was matter-of-factly nodding agreement. “Sure,” she said. “It sounds horrible but in a way much easier than the long slow fight for life that we’re going to have with global climate change anyway.”
We went on with dinner. Life returned to mundane topics. But this conversation keeps replaying in my mind. What hideous alternatives my generation is handing off to the young ones. I spent my own twenties in the Reagan years, furious at the weapons build-up and games playing by the world leaders. So outraged by the death-centered-theology (End times are GOOD!) that I entered seminary to focus on nurturing and sharing life-affirming beliefs instead.
My friends and I demonstrated at nuclear weapons facilities, spent months living at women’s peace camps, in New York and at home in Minnesota, camped out by military bases and weapon-producing factories. We held massive peace marches. Thousands of us committed civil disobedience at the local Honeywell plant that made cluster bombs. I spent seven years with a small group of women in an “empowerment group,” systematically working through the exercises Joanna Macy introduced in her book, “Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age,” and offering them up to the wider community.
I, too, thought we might all perish. The threat permeated our daily lives, our media. Reading statistics about millions of people dying was mind-numbing and unreal then, and it’s unreal now. I read a post that said before someone could push the nuclear codes, they should have to stab one living person to death and watch them die. That makes it real, takes away the video-game quality.
This morning, finally, I had a good cry. What opened my floodgates wasn’t statistics or speculations. It was a story about a particular act of cruelty, leveled against particular and vulnerable people, that someone told me about.
I felt better after I cried. It reminded me of the one lesson I learned from the Reagan years: While my friends and I—people of race and class privilege—were so focused on the scariest possibility of all, mass annihilation, specific communities were being annihilated all around us. There was a war on poor people. Mass incarceration really cranked up. The war on drugs was a strategic way to assault people of color. So, if I had those years to do over, I would focus more on the particular, the assaults already taking place, doing what I could to stop them, however tiny the effect of my actions might be, rather than fearing the ultimate destruction of the earth and her people. I don’t have those years to live over, but that’s what I’ll be continue to do now.
Don’t get me wrong, if there are massive peace marches, I’ll be there again. But meanwhile, you’ll find me affecting the tiny bits of change I can, where I live. The rest is too big to comprehend.
To the young ones, I can only say, I sorry. I am so sorry that this bleakness is yours to inherit. May you find the support and strength to fight in all the brave ways you can. And may you find joy and fun and love in the fight itself, because heaven knows we did. The friends I made then are still my fast friends, and I wouldn’t change that fact for anything. The creativity and courage of young adults have brought every kind of positive change the world has ever seen, and we all need you now.
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Also published on Medium.