It’s easy to think we’re in the worst of times. Racism, terrorism, global warming, outrageous politicians, homelessness … there’s seemingly no end to the bad news. And it is bad. But is it the worst?
I grew up at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real. The library at my elementary school was the local fallout shelter, a place we were told to go in the event of nuclear war. The reinforced concrete of the basement room would protect us from the bomb’s radiation, officials said, until it would be safe to go outside again. I vividly recall passing by the sign with the three yellow triangles in a black circle, denoting it as a fallout shelter, every time I went into the library. It was a constant reminder of the danger we faced, even if I didn’t fully understand as a child.
Every car radio had a sign on it indicating the emergency broadcasting station to which you could turn the dial to get information in the event of a nuclear explosion.
When I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, I remember collecting boxes and bags so I could pack up the things that were precious to me and take them to the fallout shelter if we had to go there. Realizing I probably couldn’t take all my stuffed animals, I prioritized which ones would go. My stuffed tiger went no matter what, but the Raggedy Ann doll could be left behind.
I was too young to really understand what the Cold War was all about. But I was aware enough to know there was something really scary and bad that could happen at any time. If, God forbid, the United States and the Soviet Union had actually gone to war back then, the mutually assured destruction would have been calamitous. People were terrified. Was that the worst of times?
Listening to the news, I sometimes find myself thinking things today are the worst. But then I think about those days when I was sure I’d eventually have to go to a fallout shelter. I think of how far we still have to go to create an equal society, but then realize that we have made some progress, even if it’s nowhere near enough. Things are bad, for sure, but are they the worst?
The problem with thinking things are the worst is that it makes it easier to just give up and give in to despair. How can we possibly fix anything when everything is so bad?
During the memorial for the Dallas police officers shot last week, President Barack Obama said: “In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus, and fighting cynicism, and finding the will to make change. Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.”
Maybe that’s how we’ve gotten through bad times before. Recognizing our common humanity helped the U.S. and the Soviet Union step away from nuclear destruction. By recognizing our shared dignity, we can help heal the wounds of racism and prejudice. And together, we can address the global warming that threatens environmental disruption on a scale even greater than what we faced with the Cold War’s nuclear winter.
Throughout history, we’ve managed to make it through many of what felt like the worst times. If we come together as a community, we can make it through today’s worst times as well.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.