Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
November 2022 - Volume 22, No. 11
Teetering on the Edge
Part One - a Moment of Private Fear
Just a couple days ago, perusing news and opinion on my cellphone news channels, I first allowed myself that gut-level realization we really could at any moment experience a nuclear attack and potential annihilation by one evil man named Putin.
For some time now I’d been reading of many in Ukraine and across northern Europe stocking up on potassium iodide, a standard antidotal for radiation emergencies. They have been feeling what I just experienced.
I’ve been here before.
And then it began to hit me - like a sock in my gut - how much I’ve been here before. I was definitely a child of the Cold War. It began before I was 4 years old (1945), and didn’t end till I was almost 50 (1989). So most of my formative years (elementary school, high school, undergraduate college) I had lived under the shadow of “the bomb.”
The constant threat of nuclear annihilation could not remain in consciousness, so it had to go deeper, so we could attend to otherwise normal life matters.
Some specific memories that returned:
- I recall sometime in pre-teens, being on vacation visiting my Dad’s Aunt and Uncle in NW Chicago. I was in their back yard, when three fighter jets flew very fast and low just above the trees (there was a Naval Air Station close by). The sound was instant and terribly loud, and I remember my deep visceral panic that “This was the End!”
- I think I was in Junior High when for awhile I carried a small transparent plastic card in my pocket with the small silhouettes of various high flying bombers, so if one would be a Russian bomber flying over Iowa, we could phone some Civil Defense headquarters with the information.
- I remember the rapid proliferation of “Bomb Shelters” stocked with metal cans of water and food to help us survive a nuclear attack. And I was fully aware that in all reality it would only mean the difference between rapid annihilation out in the open or a slower anihilation in a small dark room.
- Sometime in High School, I remember reading Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On The Beach(1957)>
- And then a memory from my college freshman year (1960). I was in the lounge of the Methodist Student Center at the (then) Iowa State Teachers College. For some reason I was discussing with a Sophomore girl the topic of “The Bomb” - what if it were to arrive at that moment, ending everything? We shared that we were both sexual virgins, and our regret of having no time left to make any change in that.
As I now recall each of these five specific “bomb” memories it occurs to me that only in the last one do I have any memory of actually sharing my experience. I was 18 years old - go figure.
Part Two - What do we do with this?
For most of our lives, we’ve lived with the knowledge of our ability to completely annihilate and/or be completely annihilated. And at one time or another we’ve all seen the photographs. And now its becoming super-real again in the real-world war between Ukraine and Russia. Vladimir Putin can do this and specifically threatens that he may well do this.
Helpless and hopeless. We know to be afraid.
Surely others know this ‘take no prisoners’ rulebook - a cruelty that weaves in and out against humanity across our globe to this day. And especially in an ‘election year’ we need be wary of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Yes we must be vigilant, in an especially across the aisles manner.
But there’s another formula.
Fear can breed chaos, and chaos is the bedrock of creativity. Our creation stories seem to always begin in darkness. Even today, as so much in our current world is falling apart, it can lead us to pay more attention to each other, our neighbor, near and far. Let the walls come tumbling down.
There are two ‘soul’ directions. One is outward, toward each other. The other is downward, into the deeper parts of ourselves, where the individual soul resides. This is a part of my work as a psychotherapist. Also both are the primary directions of my marital/couple work.
It initially took me by surprise in my “bomb” narrative to realize how little I shared with any others my turmoil within (until my testosterone emerged in that Methodist student center lounge). But it did show later in my ‘peace work’ in the Vietnam years - as well as in the counseling work I do now.
To Live More Fully
A common human pattern is that when we face our mortality, or our fears, we go to a place from which we choose to live more fully.And that’s what I see in my own life. In each of those five vignettes, I can see that I went down and emerged more centered and alive.
And that moment of panic when realizing Mr. Putin really may go nuclear, I did go down into despair for some moments, wrote this Newsletter, prayed for the people of Ukraine, and know that David did kill Goliath, say some prayers for those I love and care for, and by damn, sleep anyway toward another morning.
Calculating that the Cold War began with the Yalta Conference in February 1945, when the post WWII world map was ratified, and ended on November 9, 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Actually it began when we bombed Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Yes, Hitler bombed Britain, especially London. We firebombed Dresden. But when we used the atomic bomb against Japan, we had trumped them all, and opened a door that we can never fully close again. Can you spell ‘nuclear proliferation’?
And I still recall endless debates back in those years struggling to justify what we had done.
The novel is about a group of people gathered on an Australian beach (near Melbourne) being the last people alive awaiting the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them following a nuclear war the in the Northern Hemisphere. My body still remembers ‘feeling’ that book as I read it.
Now The University of Northern Iowa - where I spent my first two college years.
No, that did not lead to an ‘erotic moment’. Though psychologically fear and eros can be known to ‘cozy up’.
Remember that the symbolic end of the Cold War was the coming down of the Berlin Wall.
Many will insist a primary soul direction should be up because that’s where God is. But I’m aware at this time of year, we are preparing for when God came down at Christmas. Even after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended, to accomplish the Divine Work down here. Up is for the end of time.
In my college senior year, my wife and I signed up for the Peace Corps. We awaited a response, but heard nothing. Then three years later they found our paperwork and got in touch. But it was too late - we had already chosen other directions. I often wonder what our marriage missed by that crossup.
I think I’ll buy a bottle of potassium iodide tablets, Amazon has lots of them, and place them on my altar in symbolic solidarity with the people of Ukraine and their neighbors in their struggles to live, and live more fully.
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