Thursday, July 7, 2011

Generation X, the Cold War and Faith

This piece was published in *cino magazine on June 24, 2011, as part of their "My Generation" issue. I'm excited to share it here, and once again thank Vineeta of artnlight for her inspiration.

Two years ago, I was leading a weekend retreat entitled “Spiritual Pilates: Strengthening our Spiritual Core,” and giving the final talk on a Sunday morning in Lent. I’d chosen a closing quote that tied in nicely with our theme and printed it out with a graphic to leave on the participants’ chairs as they came in for our final session. The quote read:

"When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: Either you will be given something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly."
- Edward Teller

Faith

Art by nairvee of artnlight, on Flickr

 
As the people began to read the quote, a strange quiet came over the room. One lady, likely from the Baby Boomer Generation pulled me aside. “You know who wrote that, don’t you,” she asked me, seemingly distraught.

“Well, Edward Teller,” I said.

“And you know he worked on the atomic bomb, don’t you?” she continued, “He was part of the Manhattan Project and is known as ‘the father of the hydrogen bomb.’”

I felt a little sick. Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t done my homework on WHO had written the quote. I’d been taken by the hope, the light and the notion of God’s abundant love I found in the quote. And that’s what I told her. “Well, I thought you should know who wrote that before you talked about it,” she said.

I got the sense that she was worried that in a room of mostly Boomers, I’d stumbled across a taboo topic. There seemed to be a fear in the room, a palpable sense that a quote from the man who invented the nuclear bomb could not and should not be considered as a source of inspiration. But I couldn’t retrieve the handouts at that point. This was a teachable moment and I just had to figure it out.

I took a moment to pray about the quote. Why had I been drawn to it? Was it inspired? I felt that Teller eloquently wrapped up the hope that is inherent in every thing, every day, every person. That morning, I told the retreat group that I saw Teller as a man who was reflecting on his own humanity, as he had to live with the knowledge that he’d had a hand in an invention ultimately used for destruction. If that man couldn’t reflect on faith, hadn’t lived through meeting darkness head on, then I didn’t know who had. He understood as well as anyone could that when you do reach the end of light, all you have to hold on to is faith. The retreatants seemed to be satisfied with my thoughts and we moved on to closing prayers.

Born in 1972, I sit squarely in the midst of Generation X, which is often defined as those who were born between about 1960 and 1982. I know what others say about my generation — that we question authority, that we’re the materialistic “Me” generation, that we don’t quite fit in. We’re quirky. We’re all going to make less money than our fathers. Or maybe those are the things they said about us when we were teenagers, and that’s what everyone thinks of all teenagers.

Generation X inherited of the long-term effects of a nation used to being at war. Many of us were born during the Vietnam War. Even the titles of the generations before us are defined by the wars, with our parents being in either the Baby Boomer or the Silent Generation — those either too young to go to World War II or born after troops returned home victoriously from the “Last Great War.” By the time the first of Generation X was being born, fighting had been a part of the United States’ collective reality for so long that much of the sixties was spent objecting to war. And, once the world was free from actual long-term combat fighting, and there was no longer any “real” war, we entered in to what we called the Cold War from 1946-1991.

The Cold War wasn’t something that Gen X really understood. Maybe no one really understood it. While there was still an army, there wasn’t a traditional battlefield like there had been in the World Wars, or Vietnam or Korea. The Cold War, from the eyes of a child, was a war of Fear. I knew that we were trying to keep the world safe from communism. However, the Communist Bloc that we were most familiar with made appearances in films and television, like the James Bond and Rocky movies. It seemed like this war had become less about reports of battle and combat to a mass-media obsession with spies, nuclear threat and possible global annihilation.

I remember being frightened as a child that a loosely defined “they” were going to drop the bomb on us. Literally with each plane that flew overhead, I wondered if it was my last moment on Earth. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, but I figured that everyone else felt it, too. I didn’t sleep much from age 10 to 20 (I was about 20 when the Cold War ended in 1991), and I now wonder if my many sleepless nights can be attributed to an omnipresent threat that over which I had no power. I felt fear that at any moment, the hundreds of silos stocked full of nuclear warheads would be unleashed on us, without warning, and we would all be part of a nuclear holocaust.

In the early 1980s, the media helped feed and document this fear. Movies like The Day After depicted the horror of waking up the morning after nuclear war to a world of radiation and impending death. WarGames was the story of a young hacker who broke into a U.S. military computer that was programmed to run nuclear war simulations, and nearly started World War III.

The fear went beyond the U.S., with music reflecting the concern of global nuclear warfare. In 1980, the British Group OMD recorded the song “Enola Gay,” which questions the decision to send an airplane of the same name to drop the first atomic bomb (“Little Boy”) on Hiroshima in 1945. 1984’s “99 Luftballons” by Nena addressed the possibility of a nuclear war being started after both sides of the Cold War mistook red balloons sent up by children over Berlin for hostile weapons. Indeed, in mass media, the world was still trying to make sense of the power and destructive force of nuclear weapons 35 and 40 years after World War II ended.

The general feeling of persistent, malicious, yet inescapable fear of impending nuclear death was well reflected by Alphaville’s song “Forever Young.” An upbeat, danceable song, its lyrics are dark and recount the reality of a world simultaneously resolved to and obsessed with dying from nuclear war. Written by a German band, it has become the macabre ballad of a generation concerned with the youthful pastimes of dance and style, and all the while clouded by the fear of death through a war they don’t fully understand and can’t control:

let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while
heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies
hoping for the best, but expecting the worst
are you going to drop the bomb or not?
let us die young or let us live forever

The legacy left by the nuclear bomb, a weapon used in a war to “end all wars” and to “promote peace,” was a deep global fear.

On that Lenten morning, it became very clear to me that the fear that gripped the world during the Cold War was not a fear that was limited to my own generation. Perhaps the Boomers in the room didn’t think that a Gen Xer could possibly understand the fear that was rampant in the Cold War. I see now that the fear we felt in the Cold War was something that extended across generations. I understand now that I was not the only one afraid to sleep, not the only person terrified by an annihilation that the media wanted us to believe was impending. Instead, I realized that we all inherited the global concern and fear that comes as the price for having unleashed such a powerful weapon.

What strikes me now is that I first presented this quote in Lent, and found myself asking these questions that are true of Jesus’ time in the desert and true of our time in the Cold War. There is a tie between hard times, times of trial, times in the darkness and in the wilderness. I believe we were met with one of these times during the Cold War. These are my thoughts on Teller’s quote from my blog, posted before Ash Wednesday, 2009:

How do we move ahead in those times when we don’t know the ending? How do we bravely face moving ahead into these days as we examine our lives, our thoughts and our hearts? While each of us may have dark hours and tough times, we may be met with disappointments and hardships, faith keeps us true. Perhaps one of the big lessons in the time of Lent is learning to lean into that faith. Feeling with our whole being that even when we don’t know how the story ends, we will be held in capable hands. Hands that hold us tight and safe or hands that push us along to our own potential and our dreams. Hands that made each of us. Hands of the One who loves us, totally, completely, and abundantly.

Teller’s quote helps answer the question of how we move forward even though all of the generations after the end of World War II have been met with dark hours and tough times. The decision to use a destructive weapon had dire consequences and created ripples of emotion that would take decades to resolve. In fact, we may not have seen the true “end” to the story yet. Perhaps Edward Teller had already begun to wrestle with the ideas that the generations during the Cold War have encountered. Perhaps in inventing the bomb, he’d already met the fear of nuclear destruction head on, and settled the score with God in his own mind. Revisiting the words of Edward Teller brings all the more meaning after contemplating his story, and considering the effects of nuclear warfare on the world. His words bring hope to us as the generations move forward together:

"When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: Either you will be given something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly."

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