Being The Story

Explaining the possibility of nuclear war to our children

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 44
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

"When one tries to face the nuclear predicament, one feels sick, whereas when one pushes it out of mind, as apparently one must do most of the time in order to carry on with life, one feels well again. But this feeling of well- being is based on a denial of the most important reality of our time and therefore is itself a kind of sickness."

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth

I BEGAN WRITING this article for a local parenting magazine. It was going to be a simple piece, one obvious and easy to write. My idea was to read a few books, talk to local parents, teachers and activists, quote some psychological studies, and offer some pointers on thoughtful ways to talk to our children about nuclear war. But as I talked, thought and read about the issue, and wrote my outline for the article, I felt a growing sense of unreality that I could not shake.

I felt this most deeply in conversations with my son. He will be 7 this month and lately he has asked me often about nuclear weapons, war, and the Russians. I answer his questions using the communication techniques I’ve learned in working with children, and attending parenting and counseling workshops: active listening, gearing the conversation to his level and pace; being honest but not pessimistic. These were strategies I had planned to include in the how-to article; strategies that have served us well in other talks about death, sex, religion or fighting with his little brother. This time, though, something was not right. It came too easy – my tone, my stance, my explanations. It was like a play about a father talking to his son.

"Intellectually we recognize that we have prepared ourselves for self-extermination and are improving the preparations every day, but emotionally and politically we have failed to respond. Accordingly, we have begun to live as if life were safe, but living as if is very different than just living." Jonathan Schell, ibid

The truth of the matter is that I can’t talk to my son about something I have spent most of my life ignoring. I can’t write a helpful hints article on "talking" to children about an issue – the central and supreme issue of our lives – that I’ve conned myself into complacency about for years. Perhaps "con" is too severe a word. What I’ve done, what most of us have done, is very human. To get on with life, we’ve pushed death out of our minds. It’s come back to my mind now – very few minds can keep it out these days – but having it enter my heart is another matter.

Entering the heart: I tell stories to children at schools, libraries and daycare centers as well as to my own kids at home. I have always felt that good storytelling is not a matter of gesture and tone, drama and mimicry, but of living, of being inside your story. I talk to people of "creatively remembering," taking the time and making the effort to go back to your story with your eyes, ears and feelings wide-open to experience and recreate the life that is there. My unspoken statement is that if you don’t do these things, your story has no real value.

Of course, a holocaust is not bedtime entertainment. I don’t propose horrifying 9-year-olds with a catechism of radiation sickness, depletion of the ozone layer, or the misery of Hiroshima. But talking to children (or anyone) about nuclear war is a story: the story of how we have lived our lives. I believe that children can hear that story very well, and I am afraid that for most of us the story is one of sleepwalking and denial. To tell this story right, we have to wake up.

"To heal our society, our psyches must heal as well. The military, social and environmental dangers that threaten us do not come from sources outside the heart: they are reflections of it… " Joanna Macy, "Taking Heart, Spiritual Exercises for Social Activists," Fellowship, July/August, 1982

The difficulty in making the atomic threat a reality in our lives is that we can’t see it or touch it; there is so little smoke from this fire. As a 15-year-old in the fall of 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us as close (as we know of) to the edge, I was astonished (and relieved) at how unreal the danger seemed. Cars still drove up and down the streets, the mail was delivered, the disc jockeys played "Monster Mash," the number one hit record all day on the radio, and the school janitor put up the flag in the morning and took it down in the evening, carefully folding it for the next day’s use.

Instead of alarming me and my peers, this chilling, perilous event had the curious effect of calming us. The fact that nuclear war had come so close and didn’t happen seemed to prove that it wouldn’t happen.

Looking back, I see that our nuclear education prepared us for such a conclusion. Hiroshima was a short paragraph in our history books, while model fallout shelters claimed that we could resurface from our hiding places 8 to 12 weeks after the blast, and our school air raid drills consisted of crouching under our desks with our hands over our heads.

These things are ludicrous now, but not funny, because although we’ve grown more sophisticated about the facts, the myths of those times remain powerful and alluring. Chiefly, there are two:
1) that somehow we (generally meaning "my family and I") will survive; and 2) nuclear destruction is so unthinkable that it will always be undoable.

The facts that destroy the complacency of these myths are available to us everyday, not just in Schell’s book, but in articles, other books, films, newsletters, public meetings and lectures. But the facts are not always enough. How do we keep from filing away these desperate facts into safe, intellectual compartments, to be opened only at cocktail party discussions, or, perhaps, during instructive talks to our children? How do we transform the data of despair into a spiritual and emotional truth that will give us power and hope every day?

"The tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all… mental illness. Since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us are mentally ill… Some of us will go to… extraordinary lengths to avoid our problems and the suffering they cause… building the most elaborate fantasies, sometimes to the total exclusion of reality. In the … words of Carl Jung, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering’."
M. Scott Peck, M.D., The Road Less Traveled

A thought about fear: Last winter I went to see a therapist about my writing. After many years of not writing, I was overjoyed to have begun again. After a few successes I became afraid that I would fail and lose it again. I said to her, "I don’t know what to do with my fear." I expected to hear her say something along the familiar lines of "facing it," "examining the ‘patterns’ or ‘tapes’ of my fears," or "working through it." She totally surprised me. She stretched out her arms and cupped her hands around something invisible and precious, and then in the most gentle gesture imaginable, she brought her hands to her chest and said, "Why don’t you bring your fear into your heart?"

I propose that we bring our greatest fear deep into our hearts – not that we "give into fear" or "dwell" on it – but that we take the time and the courage to feel it completely – and thereby transform its power.

"Shock brings success/Shock comes – oh! oh!/Laughing words – ha! ha!/The shock terrifies for a hundred miles/And he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon.

"The shock that comes from the manifestation of God within the depths of the earth makes man afraid, but this fear of God is good, for joy and merriment can follow upon it. When a man has learned within his heart what fear and trembling mean, he is safeguarded against any terror produced by outside forces. Let the thunder roll and spread terror a hundred miles around: he remains so composed and reverent in spirit that the sacrificial rite is not interrupted." Wilhelm/Bryan, The I Ching

I am not suggesting that feelings will stop the bomb. Action, action and more action is needed. Nor am I suggesting that experiencing our deep fears and anger (as well as our joy in life) is a necessary first step. There isn’t a first step – it happens all at once: public action, personal awakening, civil disobedience, formal politics, doorbelling, national and international alliances and individual growth. But to give these actions constancy and power, we have to open our hearts and connect.

Joanna Macy, a Ph.D. in comparative religion, has developed meditation exercises to help people respond to the world’s pain. Describing an exercise called "Breathing Through," she writes:

"…Now open your awareness to the suffering that is present in the world. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can… concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and isolation, in prisons, hospitals, tenements, hunger camps… no need to strain for these images, they are present to you by virtue of our interexistence… Breathe in that pain like a dark stream, up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart and out again into the world net… you are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart… If you experience an ache in the chest, a pressure within the rib case, that is all right. The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing."

The question that began this writing persists: how do I talk to my sons about nuclear destruction? My argument is that it’s not a question of how to talk, but how to be. The most sensitive explanations in the world are just ghosts compared to our actions. And if our actions regarding the bomb continue to be sleepwalking and denial, then our "talks" to our children will be just words, gossip about "current events."

More than anything else, I want to give my sons hope. The best way to do that is to have hope myself – to demonstrate to them by my action and commitment that we can make the world a safe place to live.