(As promised yesterday, a letter to my daughter Kerala after reading her piece on laundry and the end of the world.)
Yours is not the first generation to contemplate the world’s end. I was 11 years old when a friend came running down the street like Paul Revere announcing that the world was going to blow up. The year was 1962 and fear was in the air as Kennedy negotiated us through the Cuban Missile crisis.
Some six years later, I read a book by Paul Erlich titled The Population Bomb in which he predicted worldwide famine in the 1970’s and 80’s. Around the same time I saw the movie On the Beach about the world after nuclear war. I distinctly remember writing to a girl I had a crush on telling her I was convinced that the end of the world was nigh. She wrote back telling me about a fun time she had at the ice cream parlor recently.
I learned three things from these encounters:
1. Predicting Doomsday is not a good way to begin courting a girl.
2. Most people would much rather worry about their acne then the end of the world.
3. Though all the issues— the population explosion, the threat of nuclear war and later, climate change—were and are real, the world has survived another 60 years since my fears began growing. Though the threats are real, as long as we’re still here, there’s hope.
And one more. It did no one any good—least of all me— to fret and fuss and lose faith in the future. After all, as a robust 17 year old, I had a lot to do— drugs to experiment with, a virginity to lose, music to listen to and learn how to play, books to read, trips to take, an awaiting adulthood to prepare. Once I turned my attention to what was actually right in front of me instead of what might be coming in some distant future, things made more sense. Like everyone, I danced or limped or leaped or crawled through each day as it came, but I kept moving forward, slowly built a life with deep appreciation of the past, presence in the present and hope for the future. At least for the next 10 to 15 years.
The year you were born, Reagan was elected. Joy and despair hand-in-hand. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia were high and a doctor named Helen Caldicott started warning us about the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust. Reagan’s response was to spend a few billion dollars building a Star Wars shield to protect us (never happened, never would have worked) and making plans for how the post office would deliver mail after the annihilation of most of the world (I am not making this up).
So my end-of-the-world fears resurfaced again right at the time that you appeared as the most joyful gift in my young life. You meant the world to me (then and now) and I knew I would jump in front of a car if it would save your life. Even if the car was the size and shape of a nuclear missile. So to protect your future, I turned my own fears into action and joined the Nuclear Freeze Movement. I began attending meetings, going door to door with pamphlets and occasionally speaking to small groups.
“Speaking” mostly meant showing a film called The Last Epidemic, a sobering view of what would happen if the worst happened— with plenty of data and statistics showing that the worst could happen. It was not a happy film to watch. As both nations escalated the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, there was something called the Doomsday Clock that kept inching toward midnight, the second hand sometimes as close as a minute away. Amidst all the joy of watching you grow into the world and getting the diaper laundry ready for Dydee-Wash, I was showing this film around and feeling myself sinking into the terror and hopelessness. In rooms with five other people.
Some part of my decided to turn my attention to life, it’s bounty, joys and happiness and instead of making small groups of people feeling depressed in some church basement, I started making larger groups of people happy in the Orff workshops I taught. Not to mention the kids in the daily classes at the school. I still fretted about Reagan and his ilk, went on a few marches, spoke about some of this in my workshops and articles. I came to understand that a little bit of fear is necessary to make us pay attention, that perhaps the only thing stronger than our aversion to unpleasantness is our deep will to survive.
But just how much fear? Fear lives in the brain stem that has only four rooms— fight/ flight/ freeze/ feed. It might inspire us to fight against the tide of bad policies and decisions, but it also might send us running in the other direction or make us paralyzed or binging on ice cream to cope. I came to understand that systemic problems can’t be solved at the same level at which they were created and our biggest problems were created at the level of fear.
So here I am again, faced for the third time with the end-of-the-world thoughts and the person who keeps me reminding me of them is you, my beloved daughter who I vowed to protect! And now I’m by your side sharing the work of protecting the future for your children, my grandchildren, with the same fierce determination and sleepless-night fear that we don’t know if we’ll succeed. And not only is the future in peril, but also the past, the glories of Buddha and Rumi and Basho and Shakespeare, the delights of Dickens and Dickenson and Yeats and Oliver, the beauty of Bach and Beethoven and Bird and Billie and Brown (both Clifford and James), the courage of King and Mandela and Gandhi—all will be erased like the species’ family scrapbook lost in a fire. Unthinkable.
But here’s the truth. None of us know what will happen. Not the scientists, not the spiritual teachers, not the poets and certainly not the politicians or polltakers. There could be a mass epidemic striking unvaccinated Republicans and their like in countries worldwide that might leave the rest of us ready to get to work. There could be an extraordinary scientific breakthrough by a black female genius afforded a good education that can start to heal a wounded planet. There could be a mass awakening (I already feel that happening) of people who are tired of waiting for politicians or Jesus or Allah or the next MLK to save them and take matters into their own hand. There could be a mass extinction of much of humanity, but a small group left determined to do a better job next time. Who knows?
Nobody. So alongside speaking out about reasonable fears, standing up against insane policies, shouting from the rooftops and whispering at loving gatherings at every opportunity, let’s just keep voting for life and love and yes, laundry, every day of our lives. Let’s consider that we have been here before and though the stakes are higher and the science seems solid, the world’s end has been predicted and prophesized many times over and yet, here we still are. And as long as we’re here and able to get up in the morning into those freshly-laundered clothes, let’s do so.
PS: And remember—I would still jump in front of that car for you. And Talia and Zadie and Malik.