Although my early years were spent in the tail end of the Cold War — I was already a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down — I wasn’t educated about the threat of nuclear war when I was younger. I never took part in any drills about what to do in the event of a bomb strike, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what all that “Duck and Cover” stuff was really about. (Strangely enough, my first taste of that stuff came from watching Thatcher-era UK scare propaganda on YouTube.) I don’t know if the schools I attended just decided to skip teaching that stuff to us, but it feels very strange to me as I study the history of my early years, especially with all the turmoil in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s (not to mention President You-Know-Who’s bellicose rhetoric over here) that could have easily led to global thermonuclear war if a few, relatively small, events had turned out differently.
I don’t think that I had anything more than a facile understanding of what “the end of the world” meant back then. At best, I only grasped what possibilities such a scenario opened up for the incredibly juvenile fiction I was writing at the time. (In my defence, I was a juvenile then.) The Cold War was over by the time I really understood the whole idea of “the end of the world,” at which point most of the people around me were treating as a joke, an “excuse” to grab that extra doughnut at breakfast because “you never know when the world might end.” I didn’t treat the concept all that seriously either, and for all the difficulties I faced in those early years, the fact that I didn’t have to suffer through the death of a close friend or family member until my twenties probably contributed to my inability to really grasp the concept of such staggering loss.
Now that I’ve lost both my parents and all four of my grandparents in a twenty-year span — and several other loved ones as well — the idea of the world ending weighs a lot more heavily on my mind than it ever has before. Especially after Mom’s passing late last year, it’s taken a lot for me to get over the feeling that my personal world also came to an end that last Saturday in October. I can’t even begin to explain how much of who I am today — doing my best to help others in every way I can, channeling the angry energy I feel when I witness injustice into positive actions, staying true to my beliefs in the face of overwhelming adversity — would never have been possible without her. As much as I know that she’d want me to keep pushing forward with everything I do, I still have times when my sadness gets the better of me, and I falter in my efforts to do even the most mundane of tasks. I know that this is perfectly normal, but I always hold myself to the highest standard I can (another trait I picked up from Mom), and I get unhappy when I’m not doing as much as I feel that I should be able to do.
The election that took place ten days after Mom’s passing was another devastating event for me, but I wasn’t as blindsided by it as most people I knew. In various ways, I’ve been dealing with the kind of thinking that triumphed that night for nearly my entire life. I felt like it was only a matter of time before something like that happened, and while I certainly didn’t expect it to come quite so soon, it wasn’t a total shock when it did. Besides, it wasn’t like people could blame me for being more preoccupied with Mom at that point.
As much personal stuff as I’ve had to deal with since Mom’s passing, it’s been impossible to avoid the larger national and international issues that have blossomed since then, and I know that would have been the case even if I hadn’t had to follow those issues for potential material to use in my classes. There’s been resistance to these changes, of course, and that resistance has had some successes, but the world is still in a radically different state than it was ten months ago. That the world now appears to be as close to nuclear war as it’s ever been in my lifetime just feels like another downturn that I didn’t expect to come so quickly, but still isn’t a complete surprise after everything that’s preceded it. (I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t had a “dirty bomb” attack yet, since that seems to be the logical next step for terrorists.)
It’s easy to see why so many Americans find the idea of a nuclear holocaust somewhat appealing. For younger people, it would give them a chance to live out the post-apocalyptic fantasies from the books they grew up reading. For millennials and Generation X, we’d finally be able to stop worrying about paying off those student loans. For the older generation — the one that got us into this mess — they probably believe that they’ll be able to avoid any and all consequences of nuclear bombs, since they seem to think that not even the laws of physics apply to rich white people. (Even in the face of global annihilation, dark comedy will always find a way to win out.)
I have a hard time categorizing just what my reaction to the past month of news stories has been. Honestly, there’s a significant part of myself that feels like I haven’t been doing enough to try to pull the world away from the brink of nuclear war. Me. Yes, Mom did always push me to do my best at every opportunity, but I think the whole “need to do more” feeling I have right now has less to do with Mom’s life lessons, and more to do with my ego. As much as I try to keep that sucker in check, I can’t deny that it’s still there, and it has an annoying tendency to pop up at inopportune times like this.
Perhaps I’m just feeling like I should have done more, in the small ways that I am capable of changing people in my personal and professional lives, before now. The nuclear brinkmanship that’s going on right now is just the most visible and volatile example of changing cultural attitudes in America, and some other western countries as well, that have left me more marginalized than I’ve ever felt before. Values that once felt commonplace to me are now not only waning, but under severe attack, to the point where I feel a palpable sense of danger every time I try to articulate those values, even on a platform as insignificant as this blog. It was hard to do anything outside of the bare necessities for all those months that Mom was hospitalized, and maybe now I’m just wondering what I might have been able to do if I’d just found the focus to get more work done.
More than anything, though, I just feel sad. Hope has not entirely left me, but holding onto hope sure feels more and more pointless with every new story that crosses my news feeds. It’s not that I’m expecting to get nuked any time soon, or even that I think the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used against the United States in my lifetime is all that high, but it does feel like everything has tilted so much against me now that there’s no hope of me, or anyone else, making things right again. Between the way this current administration has been conducting itself, and the refusal of the main opposition party to counteract these forces with any real significance, I can’t shake the feeling that things will just keep getting worse and worse. In that way, maybe my personal world does feel like it’s coming to an end.
Mom would want me to keep fighting, though, for all the people I may yet be able to help with my teaching, my writing and, most importantly, my heart. Mom’s passing was the biggest blow I’ve had to deal with in my life, but every day since then has seemed to bring something else to knock me down and keep me from getting back up on my feet. I’ve survived this far, and maybe surviving is all that I can expect out of myself for some time to come, but I need to do more than that. I can only hope that the opportunity to do more than survive comes to me soon.