I was born in 1937. Do I remember much about WW II? Not much. But one memory is engraved on my brain. When the news of the nuking of Hiroshima was broadcast, my mother let her head fall on her chest and sobbed. I saw the awful sadness in her. I was too young to realize what it all meant, but I could see that she felt something very terrible had happened.
That moment was a monumental influence on my outlook on life. It took a while to work through it, but I ultimately committed to nonviolence. I applied for “conscientious objector” status to my draft board. If granted, I would still be subject to required service in the US military, but not in a combat role. It was necessary to give the board evidence that the applicant was sincere. I mentioned my social and religious affiliations, but mostly supported my position with stories and essays I had written. I now think that the things I wrote then were amateurish, but I guess the board made allowances since they gave me the classification for which I had applied.
I mentioned this to a religious leader later. He commented, “That must have taken a ton of courage.” I responded that it was not the courage that was my concern, but that I felt I was forced to make that kind of choice before I was mature enough. It was tough for a teenager to decide to do something which attracted words like “traitor” and “coward.” This was particularly true for one who felt forced to make that decision before being ready. Well, I did make it, and have never regretted it although others have criticized me for it.
I am now much older and, I hope, much wiser. I now understand the horror my mother felt. I look back and see what the Germans did in the Holocaust and to the cities of Europe. I see what the Japanese did to the Chinese in Nanking, and to the prisoners they took during the war. I see what my beloved United States and its allies did to firestorm the manufacturing cities of Germany and — in addition to the nukings — the “paper cities” of Japan.
I see that happening in so many ways today. Someone attempting a home invasion or mom-and-pop store burglary or a carjacking to become initiated into a gang or to feed his or her family, a cop so scared of being in some neighborhood that he or she shoots first and doesn’t question whether it was necessary — until later perhaps. A revolutionary fighter killing people for the capital crime of believing in something that he or she deems evil. And I, too, hang my head on my chest and cry for all of us.
Now you know why I deeply appreciated David’s blog on mothers. In addition to all the other things she gave me, my mother showed me through soul-to-soul communication what cruelty there really was in the world. And without knowing that, there is no way to resist that cruelty. It was the gateway to understand what the Mahatma, Gandhi, meant. What Martin L. King meant. What Nelson Mandela meant.
Unlike these heroes of mine, it is beyond my powers now to give forgiveness. Perhaps that will become possible over time. Perhaps . . .
Maybe I can explain it better with a poem I wrote many years ago. It was originally dedicated to astronauts and cosmonauts who died in the attempts to explore space. I think it is also appropriate to show love for those who see the bright future rising from dark ashes of hate and cruelty.
IN MEMORY OF THE GREATEST ADVENTURE
The bright sparks of stars stare down upon us with unblinking eyes.
They laugh with soundless voices as we pit our frail beings against their terrible hostility.
But with unreasoning determination, we shall yet make space our empire,
And our heroes are those who give us the stars.
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