Jane Alexander in "Testament" (1983)
Jane Alexander in “Testament” (1983)

The first 10 words in Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters never cease to move me:

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

Before you answer, consider the next sentence.

“…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”

Wellness or wholeness have been hard to come by in recent months.

I‘m never sure if wellness is a priority in this culture. So many political points are gained when things fester and bleed and someone rushes in with the cure and saves the day vs. preventing the illness, preparing for the worst or de-escalating. On-going diplomacy doesn’t make good drama.

We’re talking about nuclear war again. Have we swallowed the wrong pill? Or has the Marvel movie fantasy franchise where superheroes survive catastrophic battles become our visual hallucinogenic? Though an interesting and useful narrative and analysis on power struggles for better and worse, the superhero and intergalactic war fantasies fail to remind us how fragile we humans really are. We embrace imperfection and I suppose that’s the primary attraction in the first place. Any problem can be solved by imperfect beings with unearthly powers. We can survive anything through pluck and luck. But is that living or being well?

Though these superheroes are now being held accountable on real world terms for the collateral damage from their battles with genocidal villains to restore a sense of “order”, we rarely see the ordinary mortal local folks coming out from their hiding places looking at the destruction and figuring out how to clean up the mess or where to bury their dead if they can find them in the rubble. Can we rebuild? How many years before the cities are inhabitable, if at all? Let’s not forget trauma. How do you cure that? When will we feel well and whole again? These questions frame real narratives in today’s real world.
Storytellers haven’t taken on the subject of thermonuclear annihilation in the same way they did in 1983, a direct response to the last years of the Cold War arms race between the US and USSR (aka Russia) with the release of “War Games” (1983), “Testament” (1983) and “The Day After.” In fact, “The Day After” was presented as a must-see national television event with a panel following the film. The 1980s took the apocalyptic scenario seriously featuring everyday people whose only powers were empathy and a desperate desire to be well after it was too late. We all got a taste of a real life moment caused by a sickness that released the mushroom cloud of fire. Bottom line the sickness kills.

Sports medicine might be a temporary remedy. The upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea has signaled a neighborly thaw between North and South Korea, or a low dose aspirin to lower the fever. Nevertheless, one keeps a one-eye-open button on his desk. We’ve all seen that red button in the movies or television. It launches the attack or the distress signal. This fever makes it difficult to tell which button is which.

Here in the US we talk about codes and a box that accompanies the President everywhere. But now this President orders a button too, bigger. One button against another button. How can we be so infected by these carriers whose buttons can be so easily pressed. The buttons should be configured to call in a nurse.

More and more we must decide if we want to be well, if we want to be whole in 2018. It is up to everyday people to take preventative measures and find healthy alternatives, remedies, and perhaps a cure. But first we have to want it. Wholeness carries weight of maintenance because there’s a lot of sickness around us. But it’s never as heavy as dead weight.

We are not superheroes who can only realize their purpose in grandiose life or death situations. We can carry our loads together. We can aspire to wellness and manage the weight of being whole.

And know this… about those first 10 words in The Salt Eaters. They come from the mouth of a healer to a woman in a hospital having failed to commit suicide.