World War II cast a long shadow, and my generation was born in the aftermath. Then the shadow burgeoned into a decades-long frenzy of terror of communism. The Soviet Union was the incarnation of evil, of course, and war was ever imminent. Not just any war, though, for the atomic genie had been released from its bottle. The world came perilously close on a number of occasions. In between crises, every international twitch was scrutinized, analyzed, and dissected. Meanwhile, we kids were practicing “duck and cover,” as if hiding under a school desk could protect us from a nuclear blast.
Presidents came and presidents went, and the threat of annihilation waxed and waned but never left us. We focused on smaller wars where we had the illusion we could actually change the world. As it turned out, all those protest marches against the Viet Nam War did make a difference in the end, although at the time it didn’t seem so. In retrospect, I believe the sense of powerlessness and insignificance caused as much damage to our confidence in the future as any military threat. Which is not to say that the threat of nuclear war was not real, but rather that my generation internalized it in a way that left us vulnerable to being triggered by other events.
Humans aren’t very good at estimating the relative danger of various things. We exaggerate some risks and minimize others. Some dangers frighten us out of all proportion to the odds of them happening to us. We casually ignore other things that are much more likely to injure or kill us. The possibility of war and its affect on us, personally and nationally and globally, is no exception. We panic or we shrug or we pretend or we drive our fears into our subconscious minds, where they erupt as irrational behavior or nightmares.
For me the first strategy in deciding how to respond to news – a perceived increased threat of war– is to understand that I do get triggered. I have had frightening experiences before. When I’m discussing the news with someone not of my generation, it’s a good idea to keep that in mind. I’ve learned that I am much more likely to catastrophize when presented with certain information than in other circumstances. I remember early in this president’s tenure being suddenly terrified of a war with North Korea. That wasn’t my rational, analytical mind, calmly evaluating risk. It was my terrified child mind, remembering things I could not understand. Remembering the fears of the adults around me, and not very good at separating “that was then, this is now.”
I count myself fortunate in having been able to discuss current events with those same adults, mostly my parents. In the late 1960s, when I was in college and involved in the anti-draft, Viet Nam War protest movement, a news article sent me into a tizzy. I was sure this was going to precipitate World War III. Instead of decamping to Canada, I called my father. Born in 1907, he saw current events through the lens of personal memories two world wars. He agreed that the news was troubling but he didn’t see it as a looming disaster. His words to me were calm and rational, and what stayed with me was how helpful it was to reason things out with someone who wasn’t wigging out.
The converse is true, too. When I’m reacting strongly to news (or anything else, for that matter), I fare better when I don’t consult people who are panic-stricken on that topic.
I also fare better when I remind myself that I am not the only person in the entire planet responsible for what happens. That my thinking one way or the other, being frightened or confident, can alter the course of history. In truth, the only thing it can alter is the quality of my own life. This sort of magical thinking – that my fears can alter the future – is typical of children of a certain age, and it rears its ugly head when my own childhood fears come up. I hope — and I believe — that somewhere, there are other adults. This does not mean that complacency and blind trust are effective strategies for me, only that I am not alone. I can do my part (write, call my representatives, get out there on the pavement and demonstrate, and so forth) and then trust that others are doing the same.
It is as important to my mental well-being to know when to let go as it is to be inspired to take action. Passivity and helplessness are a recipe for depression. But not being able to rest, not recognizing my limits, are equally hazardous. They result in crippling overwork and neglect of my family and my self. Neither option is healthy.
And if we are to survive – and thrive – in these troubled times, with reckless military actions and myopic, arrogant leaders – then we must take excellent care of ourselves. Know our personal vulnerabilities. Talk to people who help us to think clearly and avoid those who feed our fears. Tend to our hearts and spirits. Keep all things in balance.