How we view our history and future can be skewed, or even screwed if we don't see either well. I promised my readers I would…
“Do you ever think about dying?” asked Barbie.
I do. Do you?
I’m on the eve of my 78th, luckily still alive. I think about dying, but not in a morose way.
I stumbled into death at age 18 when I worked for a funeral home that also ran the community’s ambulance service. We’d take the big “S” off the side of the Oldsmobile hearse, put the bubble light on top, and clamp in the stretcher. Sometimes we’d deal with accidental or old age death; another time I “delivered” (caught) a slippery baby. I helped embalm people I had gone to school with. I went on to get a funeral director’s license.
But “let the dead bury the dead.” Liking college and learning, I went on to get a bachelor’s in psychology and philosophy, which led to seminary, then located at the University of Chicago. I earned a Master of Divinity. (But that degree doesn’t mean I know the secret of what lies past death.) That led to 50 years of liberal UU ministry where I sat with the dying and officiated at numerous memorials.
Being around death most of my life doesn’t mean I think about it much. I avoid. I’ll think about it when the time comes. I suspect when I die, I won’t even know it because I won’t be there to witness, grieve, or look forward. Just gone. Only the living grieve. Memorials honor the dead but serve the living. How to serve you yourself and others before you die?
Why the gloomy topic?
The older I get the more young people there are. Dead ones too. The icons and heroes of our time are passing.
Pee Wee Herman died. Comedian Paul Reubens died at age 70. In his huge hit, “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure,” he dared declare, “I’m a rebel.” I admired his whacky wit. Even his getting caught pleasuring himself in a movie theater didn’t make me hate him. He caught our eyes and ears for a bit.
Others did too. Consider other celebrity deaths so far this year.
Smooth crooner Tony Bennet. Stacked Girl on the Beach Rachel Welch (only by then she had turned 80, not as pretty). Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie. (If Elvis is still alive, he’s probably getting old.) Hot singer/dancer Tina Turner. Smooth-voiced, admirable citizen Harry Belafonte. Rock guitarist Jeff Beck. Folk-rock musician David Crosby. Crooner Burt Bacharach. Promoter of the crude and contentious, Jerry Springer.
Then there are people in our own lives who we’ve had to let go.
I long ago had to let my parents go. Had she lived, Mom would be 100. Dad would be 122. All my cousins, who I grew up with, are gone. My beloved once-wife, the mother of our children, gone. I am now the patriarch of my family. No one to learn genealogy or stories from. No one to ask for money. I’m the one who should have wisdom and money.
I wish I could live my life over, knowing then what I should know by now.
“Our lives are threescore and ten, or by reason of strength, fourscore… So, teach us to have a heart of wisdom,” goes the lines in Proverbs I often used at memorials.
We get a lot of time to have our time. Oh, the eras come and gone! Oh, the places and people, the lessons and laments, the boredom and thrills! We all know what’s coming. Yet, how do we spend our limited days? How many breaths do we have, and of them, how many do we revel in? How many people will we know, and of them, how many will we benefit? Who have we become as we whirl along in our time?
We’re the current incarnation of all our ancestors. We inherit history as it has become, so far. We steer it a bit for our time. We get the blessing and curse of life. What are we doing with it?
As a culture, we’re somewhere between Barbie and Oppenheimer, the two movies being promoted this summer.
Barbie is all pink and cheerful. She’s sleek and pretty, but like her boyfriend Ken, she has vague sexual parts. She’s resented by some for having unrealistic long legs and by others for being too woke. Not even plastic dolls should be too sexy or too woke.
Oppenheimer helped create nuclear bombs. He quoted the Hindu scripture, “I am become the destroyer of worlds.” Funny how we turn to scriptures for pithy rationales, as if reading writings considered sacred makes our acts sanctified. Similar rationalizations rely on the Bible.
I was born two hours before my birth country’s atomic bomb killed about 70,000 innocent civilians (give or take a few thousand; big numbers numb us to actual persons). A few days later, another 40,000 or so died at Nagasaki. None were enemy combatants. They were exterminated to send a message to Japan and maybe Russia: we have the will to kill.
Oppenheimer was asked, “Do you have moral scruples about that?” He answered, “Terrible ones.”
Indeed. He alone was not responsible. We’re all involved in this predicament.
Imagine a ton of dynamite. Multiply that by 15,000 and we marvel at the power of “Little Boy,” that first bomb, a little one by today’s standards.
How explosive was Little Boy? Roughly, a grenade has about a half-pound of TNT in it. It would kill a person 50 feet away. It costs about $45. So that’s 4,000 grenades per ton times 15,000 tons equals 60 million grenades worth in Little Boy, which would cost $27 million dollars for the equivalent grenades.
These are big numbers. Terrible ones. Little ones compared to what came next.
In 1961 Russia dropped Tsar Bomba, a 50-million-ton equivalent of TNT, only half of what they might have tested. The half-size bomb was 3,300 times more powerful than that which leveled Hiroshima! While both Russia and the US could build such superbombs, they proved too big and heavy to deliver, so smaller, cheaper, more versatile ones are favored. Some toy with the idea of tactical nuclear bombs for ordinary battlefield settings. Nuclear war would devastate at least the northern hemisphere (the US, Europe, Russia, China, etc.) with toxic radiation for generations. We’re all enjoying life but with background trepidation.
Fortunately, the world pulled back from atmospheric testing and has reduced the overall arsenal, but not nearly enough to ensure long-term safety. We can relax, but only a little bit.
Back to Barbie. She’s still young! Somehow, she hasn’t aged. No wrinkles. No sags. She’s still a star after all these years. Clean and cleanable though she is, she is still controversial.
I feel sorry for young people growing up between Barbie and Oppenheimer. We’re somewhere between trite and terrible. In a cheap culture and a dangerous one, young people must live in their bodies and cultures as-is.
Females have been told so much that they can be astronauts or soldiers they might lose the sense that they can become mothers. Sure, women can be other than wives and mothers, but what becomes of housekeeping, companionship, and raising children when none are being complimented for that?
What becomes of enjoying and living into one’s own sex and sexuality when the only ones being praised for that are the ones “coming out” or “transitioning over?” What becomes of men who grow up in a culture that resents and mocks them for the thousands of years of patriarchy that they didn’t create? What becomes of us when the memes of our times insult us for the past and scare us for the future? Will AI (Artificial Intelligence) tell us who to be and what to do?
When Houston Smith (renowned professor of religion) came here decades ago he explained eternity in a way that has stuck with me. We aren’t individually eternal, he said, but we temporarily take part in something that is. Before we were born and after we have passed both the environment and our civilization existed, and they will continue to do so after we have passed. We take part in both for our time. The air we breathe is ours as we inhale and exhale. It goes on when we do not. The songs and stories of our culture and civilization have long pleased and informed us. There will be new ones when we no longer sing or tell them.
Estimates are that one Hiroshima-sized bomb worth of heat has been added to our oceans and global atmosphere per second in the last 150 years! That unusual heating is the equivalent of 25 billion Hiroshima-sized bombs worth of heat added just since 1970. The hot oceans and resulting increased storms and sea rise will continue for generations to come. Our technological habits need updating. For now, no one else can know or change this.
We inherit and somewhat steer our culture and climate for a while. Then we die.
God bless the elders and young people of our time with pleasant weather and songs, please. None of us alone control the climate or the dire challenges of our generation. But they’re ours to deal with, both cute dolls and more concerning conditions. So is this precious planet, ours to treasure, not to trash.
So, what to do? Enjoy your breath. Dwell in exuberance and peace sometimes and try to share that with others who also need it. Face the difficult demands of our generation’s incarnation and veer your life and ours for the better. Try to get a heart of wisdom. We’re the “Structure of Success,” the inheritors of countless generations of life surviving their hard challenges.
We feel alone but we’re in this together. Life isn’t as trite as Barbie or as terrifying as the bombs. Grateful for our time in this starry cosmos, live your life fully while you can.