We live in anxious times, I think most people would agree. Nothing is predictable and potential catastrophes loom whichever way you look. The people in charge either don’t seem to have much idea what they are doing, or seem like cynical crooks. But maybe that’s nothing new?
When I was looking through my mother’s papers, I came across a neatly handwritten draft ‘letter’ that begins very alarmingly: “Tonight I sat down seriously to think whether it would not be the best thing to do to take my life and the life of my children.” Needless to say – being one of those children – I dropped this as though it were on fire at first, and it was a while before I found the courage to read on.
I knew my mother had suffered severe depression on and off throughout my lifetime, and that she had sometimes been suicidal – when we were quite small, she used to threaten to put her head in the gas oven, or lock herself in her bedroom with pills while my sister pleaded with her to come out. But in this letter she was threatening to take us with her – a thought that had never occurred to me in all my terror that she might abandon us.
She continues “I know the verdict of the world would be ‘of unsound mind’. My mind is not unsound, I am not mad. But I no longer know how to go on living.” It transpires that she had just watched a Panorama programme about the nuclear arms race, and its seeming unstoppability. This was in 1968 – my mother was then forty, and had already lived through one ‘hideous war’ as she put it. Her parents had survived two, including my grandfather spending four years as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front.
She had seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The new nuclear weapons were 1000 times more destructive, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of innocent people, yet the leaders talked about them as if they were merely a game of strategy. “What can I do about people like this – madmen – with such enormous power over my life?”
My mother seemed utterly convinced that the world would be wiped out by nuclear war in her lifetime. Well it wasn’t, and somehow we manage to continue living quite comfortably (or perhaps unthinkingly) with the continuing threat of this kind of warfare, worrying only briefly when powerful world leaders rattle their nuclear sabres at each other. So far, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory – that if one side uses nuclear weapons, that’s the end of everything – has held, but it’s no surprise that the acronym for this concept is MAD.
I know that the extreme level of my mother’s fear was of course related to her depression, as well as contributing to it. “What can I do? I know the answer is – nothing. I have to try to live my hopeless life through.” Traumatised as a child by the Blitz bombings of London (and also I believe re-traumatised by her experience of giving birth), she felt paralysed by terror and a sense of futility. She couldn’t even see the point in protesting, since the anti-nuclear marches were ignored, or protesters dismissed as ‘cranks’. “I feel so impotent to do anything to stop the bomb falling that everything else is senseless and useless.”
And no doubt some of this fear transmitted itself to us, despite her decision to “tell them (us) to ignore it – forget about it – until it drops.” Perhaps humans have always feared annihilation – it’s hardwired into us to screen the world for potential danger. Awareness of our own future mortality – however much we try to ignore it in our death-denying society – only contributes to the level of alarm. And out imaginations, which have allowed us to create the most marvellous life for ouselves, also sets out a perpetual series of ‘what-ifs?’ for us to worry about.
But I think we do our young people no favours in continually telling them that the world is terrible place, that we have ruined it for them and that they may have aln abysmal future. What they need most is energy and hope, a sense of positivity that there can be better way to live, and that it is achievable despite all appearances. As parents and elders we must be careful not to unwittingly transmit our own fear of death – which as we grow older becomes stronger – to the generation who are starting out in their lives, but to have faith in them that they will undboutedly find a way forward. Indeed they already are.