Letting Go Without Giving Up

I wrote this for the 2018 bay area solstice celebration. A recording is available here.

When I was growing up, I used to watch this documentary about Mount Saint Helens. It started the summer of 1980; for the first time in a hundred years, the mountain was waking up. Starting in March, tremors began to shake the mountain. These quakes caused avalanches and over the next eight weeks the mountain began belching small clouds of ash. Static electricity generated from ash clouds sent out lightning bolts up to two miles long.

Early in April, Dixie Ray, the governor of Washington state, declared a state of emergency and issued an executive order creating a “red zone” around the volcano; anyone caught in this zone without a pass faced a $500 fine or six months in jail.

One man refused to leave. That was Harry Truman, not the president with the same name, but rather a curmudgeonly old man who owned and operated a lodge by Spirit Lake, right at the base of the mountain.

Harry Truman outside his lodge

Truman was quite the character. He had owned his lodge for 52 years. He had 16 cats. There are no shortage of stories about him. In one…

Neither the sheriff nor the national guard could convince him to evacuate.

Those are actual quotes.

The mountain, the lake, the lodge, his cats, that was everything he had. Everything he had built. He couldn’t believe he could lose it all.

The morning of May 18th, 1980… The mountain erupted with the force of 26 megatons of TNT, about the same explosive force as the largest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the United States. An eruption column rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere. The eruption caused the entire weakened north face of the mountain to slide away, creating the largest landslide ever recorded. The enormous flows of lava and mud sped down the mountain at 670 mph, and Spirit Lake, together with Harry Truman and all of his cats, was buried under hundreds of feet of molten rock and debris.

After the eruption, Harry Truman’s sister Geraldine said that she found it hard to accept the reality of his death. She said,

Death is a hard reality to accept, maybe the hardest. We go to great lengths to recover the bodies of the dead, so we can see them, and know for sure that they’re really gone. Truman’s body was never found. Without that, we may just not believe it, even if we know a volcano has destroyed everything around them for miles.

Many here will be familiar with the Litany of Gendlin:

What is true is already so…

But some truths are too hard to bear. Our minds protect us from these truths by denying them.
Your mom loved your brother/your sister more than you.
That friendship was toxic, bad for both of you.
Your brother, Harry Truman, is dead.

Truths like these can be too much to bear.

We evolved our minds. They’re not truth machines, they’re action machines. We believe things because they’re functional to believe. When we have lots of options, it’s easier to believe things that disrupt our plans. But when our options are narrow, it becomes a lot harder. If it’s a volcano that’s going to destroy everything you’ve built in the last 51 years, then maybe it’s just too hard to accept.

Our minds our set up to believe that we can get the things we need, somehow. And sometimes, truths threaten our most cherished plans. These truths can break us. Gendlin was wrong, when he wrote “owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.”

It can make it worse. When the truth is horrible, when it would destroy our hope, crush our lodge, kill our cats, take our loved ones, then it may be worse. We may choose death, rather than face it.

If we have options, we can bear difficult truths. Most of the people near Mt. St. Helens evacuated when the warnings came. Most of them didn’t have so much of their lives wrapped up in the mountain. They had other options.

18 years before Mt. St. Helens blew, another event threatened a multi-megaton eruption. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of nuclear war. This would not have been the 26 megaton eruption of Mt. St. Helen. It would have been a Mt. St. Helens for every city and military base in the US and the Soviet Union.

It started in October of 1962, when US intelligence discovered the Soviet Union had been sending nuclear-equipped missiles to Cuba. The US quickly established a naval blockade around Cuba. In response, the Soviet Union sent nuclear equipped submarines to the Caribbean. When US Navy ships detected one of these submarines, they started dropping signaling depth charges to force it to the surface. Out of contact with Moscow and thinking they were under attack, two commanding officers on one sub, decided to launch a nuclear torpedo and take down the carrier fleet. Vasili Arkhipov, another officer, talked them down. A narrow miss.

A US Navy VP-18 flying over a Soviet cargo ship during the Cuban Crisis. Source: Wikipedia

The military establishment was putting a huge amount of pressure on Kennedy to invade Cuba. Marines were on stand by and plans for the invasion were put in place. What US intelligence did not know was that the Soviets had given the Cuban military tactical nuclear weapons for defense of their shores. They surely would have used them if the US had invaded.

These tremors shook the United States, but people didn’t do much. There was no red zone drawn, no evacuation. Many could have fled the country, south or north, out of the way of likely missile targets. But to do so would be to accept a difficult truth — that their entire world could come crashing down in nuclear annihilation. While they knew this abstractly, they did not truly believe this was about to happen. And it didn’t happen, that round.

We are not on the brink of a nuclear war. But would we believe it if we were? Or would we, like Truman, like those witnessing the Cuban Missile Crisis, be unable to contemplate the loss of all we had built.

The future is uncertain. There are many failure modes. We are growing powerful faster than we are growing wiser. We may feel tremors before an eruption. Will we have the strength to see the tremors for what they are?

To bear difficult truths requires strength, justified courage. If our minds are not strong enough to handle difficult truths, then we will not believe them until it is too late. Let us not assume the worst, but let us not be blinded to the worst, if the worst is truly before us. What is true is already so, including those truths that threaten everything we have.

Applying the security mindset to everything