Boomers are a product of unsettling times. We were brought into a world irrevocably changed by the development and then use of the atomic bomb. Ours was a world where our parents attempted to heal their own trauma from war, genocide, racism, and poverty without the strategies or tools necessary to come to terms with the fact that an unholy decision had been made to kill many people in order to stop other people from killing more.

I was born into a science-fiction world come true. I grew up struggling to understand the undeniable reality that human beings did terrible, horrible things to one another. I, along with my peers, foundered in a new and uncomfortable world that promised truth, justice and the American Way while having us tuck, duck, and cover beneath flimsy classroom desks. It made no sense.

Cognitive Dissonance

This is the same “uncomfortable bedfellow” experience I have been having with Christopher Nolan’s, Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” playing at the same time in theatres across the country. If they had been released at different times, I don’t think I would fully appreciate just how they illustrate my developmental journey, both historically and morally.

If you have yet to see these movies, I encourage you to do so! Oppenheimer details the complicated path of genius called to do the impossible – end a war by unleashing the most destructive chain reaction known to humans. Barbie holds a mirror to the idealism and denial of reality, born of too much pain and suffering, and hoping to relieve that through play and fantasy. The capacity to hold both these in one mind, even for a short period of time, is called “cognitive dissonance”, and usually makes people really uncomfortable. The fact that many of us do NOT experience cognitive dissonance when doing this is what is most fascinating to me.

Moral Equivalency

Both these movies ask similar questions:  just because you have the capacity/ability/resources, should you go ahead and do things that potentially impact others in harmful and negative ways?  If yes, how do you justify your actions? 

Harry Truman was left with the “buck-stops-here-accident-of-history” task of giving the final order to drop two atomic bombs. He had to weigh the moral equivalency. He stated afterwards that it was the hardest decision he ever had to make. But he made it.

Mattel became a successful purveyor of fantasy, promising young girls everywhere that perfection was within reach and you, too could have it all!  Their corporate structure belied their fantasy-in-a-box world, and enforced a patriarchal business model for far too long.  Their products perpetuated stereotypes that created ripples across class, race, and culture while making millions for stockholders.

This Week in History

78 years ago today, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Word of this spread slowly compared with how a similar catastrophe would light up our mobile phones and fill coverage on the 24-hour news stations today.

The enormity of what occurred wasn’t initially understood. Words like “TNT” and “megaton bomb” and “mushroom cloud” had little meaning for most people. After all, we were at war. This was a tool that would end that war.

Slowly, inevitably, and frighteningly, word got out, and, more importantly, photographs and film captured the devastation. These images became embedded in our Boomer consciousness. I suspect that you can, without much effort, call to mind the image of the mushroom cloud or the vista of an entire city wiped clean of buildings and life. That is how powerful this event was.

Unintended Consequences

The Japanese surrendered within a week of the second bomb being dropped. We celebrated VJ-Day. The “Boys” came home. Except for those involved with the Manhattan Project and a few politicians, the majority of Americans didn’t have a clue that our world was forever changed and we would need to find new ways to learn to live with the threat of annihilation while confronting enemies with new and unfamiliar names.

A new awareness of our shared vulnerability, fragility, and mutual dependence arose. Remarkably, out of that awareness came the United Nations and NATO. Out of that came agreements on tracking and limiting use of these new weapons. Out of that came commitment on the part of individuals and nations alike that using such force should never, ever happen again.

With some rebranding, nuclear energy became “friendly”. Advances in technology promised a future independent of fossil fuels, medical cures, and swords turning into plowshares.

Sadly, those promises have fallen short.

Barbenheimer Guidelines for Living

The wonderful thing about these two movies coming out now, is that our memory banks need to be re-booted, and these movies accomplish that!  The roots that gave rise to the resentment and genocide back in the 1930s in Europe and Asia are still firmly in place, and we see them sprouting everywhere!  And while Boomer’s only tangentially lived through those years, we are evidence that the worst that humankind can dish out can be survived and a future secured.

Our work as elders is to hold our peers accountable for acting in ways that contribute to hate, falsehoods, and racism. We must take a stand for future generations and not succumb to thinking that there is no hope. We must support the efforts of those involved in social, environmental, political, and individual change, and where we have the capacity, contribute however we can.

Oppenheimer Grew Old: Barbie Never Aged

Life after the Manhattan Project ended was not easy for J. Robert Oppenheimer. He died at age 62, of throat cancer. He had to live with the consequences of his scientific contributions: that human beings seem destined to self-destruct. Both reviled and held in the highest esteem, Oppenheimer the man never found an easy path forward in a society that didn’t comprehend his genius as an inventor and scientist, but exploited his faults as a man. But he did have a moral awakening that, in many ways redeems him.

Barbie, on the other hand, is ageless. Her inability to change holds her hostage and does not allow for growth or change. She may swap her outfits, but never changes her mind. And this suffering (and it is suffering!) is best described as being kept in Mattel Purgatory. In the movie, director Greta Gerwig shows us what aging might actually be like if Barbie would just drop her guise of “perfection”. Those moments are the sweetest of all.

How Do We Move Forward?

I find myself these days wondering how we can move forward. Our political systems appear to be disintegrating, neighbors no longer trust each other, predictability seems to have gone out the window. It is easy to just withdraw and hope for the best.

History suggests that two paths lie ahead. The “history is repeating itself” meme will take us through dire times, with loss of life and much suffering. That is the path of least resistance, and one that many people think is inevitable.

The “knowing what I know now, I can make a different choice” strategy I strongly endorse is the other. It requires that we risk giving up what we think makes us comfortable and doing something radical – caring for one another instead of shaming and blaming. It can be as simple as calling a friend or listening to a stranger. It might be as momentous as Trinity.

One response to “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis

    Mary, this month I “turn” 76. I loved today’s blog because (a) it reminded me of the emotionally N-O-T “easy times” we “boomers” inherited growing up (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 NEARLY ended humanity’s existence), but also (b) of a realization that my hubby and I have spontaneously been having.

    Given the “unexpectedly (NOT!) fast” accelerating crisis of global warming and next, sea level rise (i.e. unusual so-called “weather,” i.e, floods, droughts, famines, insane “heat bubbles,” monster cyclones and worldwide wildfires) AND worse: much of humanity’s totally UNCONSCIOUS knee-jerk reaction to it (i.e. the seeking of simple-minded “magic answers” from con-men dictators who promise they will “take us back” to some never-existed, safe fantasy world) . . . we elders may well be “here” – if for nothing else, to WITNESS all this.

    And,what might we be witnessing, one might ask? An entire (Darwinian) SPECIES’ mortality (our own) – possibly occurring parallel to our generation’s INDIVIDUAL elder-passing. For, a brutal fact of Nature is: Any species that recurrently fails to learn from its own actions and instead responds with denial, insane “beliefs,” fear-based divisiveness and by seeking Magic authoritarian “answers” – VERY WELL may NOT “inherit the Earth.” “Stay tuned!” (And let us not forget that old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”) Ah well!

    (PS: This is not as dire or “grim” as it might seem, for in reality: “None of us gets out of here alive!!!” The choice we MIGHT still have to make is, do we go individually or EN MASSE?)

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