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Oppenheimer: Integration vs. Damnation

I saw Oppenheimer last Saturday.

Seeing movies in the theater was one of the things I missed the most during COVID. The first movie I can remember seeing in a theater was Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; my grandmother took me in 1996, and even though Frollo completely terrified me, I was still thrilled by the experience. Now, I go to the theater to see a movie every chance I get—most often in delicious solitude. I was glad, though, to have friends with me this Saturday.

After my friends and I watched Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour retelling of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project, we stood wide-eyed on the sunbaked sidewalk and debriefed our experience. The July evening was hot, but beneath my skin, I was chilled; my stomach felt tight, twisted, and slightly nauseous. Watching the atomic bomb explode in the New Mexico desert filled me with a primal horror similar to the childhood fear I’d felt watching the lust-ridden Frollo writhe before fiery demons. It was the fear of damnation—the horror of glimpsing hell.

Even after thirty minutes of processing on the sidewalk, I still required two hours of intense self-care when I returned home—two hours of cooking, journaling, stretching, listening to music, and reminding myself of all the reasons I still have hope for humankind. And even after that, I wouldn’t say I have fully recovered. Oppenheimer shook me. I think it was intended to shake us.

If we do not feel shaken after watching the fearful birth of the atomic bomb and the destruction it has wrought upon the world, then we have lost touch with a vital part of our humanity.

Oppenheimer is filled with countless scenes of scientists and politicians gathered in rooms and at tables, making crucial decisions that will impact the fate of the world. They were all men; most of them even looked the same—white and dark-haired, with tense shoulders inside the suit coats that marked their class and status, with desperation written all over their faces. As these scenes rolled across the screen, I found myself wondering, Where are all the women? Why do these men get to make such decisions for the world all on their own?

When I voiced this to my friend afterwards, she pointed out that it wasn’t just the women missing. There was no diversity whatsoever in those rooms and at those tables—just white male scientists, white male soldiers, and white male politicians. Where were the philosophers? Where were the spiritual guides and hospice workers? Where were the Buddhists? Where were the indigenous people? Where were the artists, the poets and painters and playwrights? Where were the poor and the working class? Where were the teachers and nurses and social workers? Where were the mothers who’ve carried life in their bodies and the elders who’ve made peace with death? Where was the collective wisdom of humanity?

How could this happen? And, more disturbing yet, why is it still happening?

When we lack diversity at the tables where great decisions are made, we sacrifice great wisdom and we do great harm.

When we fail to utilize the collective wisdom of the human race—the higher consciousness or the wise, kind Self of humankind—we end up isolated from each other and isolated from the planet. We become dis-integrated, cut off from one another. We draw lines in the sand, and turn an opportunity for mutual growth through kindness and sacrifice into a brutal war of Us against Them. And in that war, all of us lose.

I’m an attachment-based therapist; those of you who are returning visitors to this blog are used to hearing about attachment theory. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let you down; I think even Oppenheimer benefits from the constructs of attachment theory.

Let’s see if I can make sense of this for you. Attachment relationships occur in every system, whether it’s the system of a nuclear family (interpersonal), the system of an internal family (intrapsychic), or the system of nations interacting across the globe (international). Systems are designed to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium over time; systems often achieve this homeostasis or equilibrium through the predictable patterns of attachment, whether secure or insecure. Through patterns of attachment interactions, members of systems signal when they have needs, get their needs met and meet others’ needs, and try to stay within the Window of Tolerance by managing the threats of both closeness and distance. Even unhealthy systems work this way.

With this in mind, step back and look at the world as a system—sovereign nations as members of an interconnected global system that depends on homeostasis to survive. These parts of the system use natural resources, financial, political, and military power, and shifting alliances with one another to get their needs met, to manage threats and establish safety, and to allow their citizens to survive. It’s an attachment system.

What happens, though, when you introduce a threat like the atomic bomb into this delicate attachment system?

Threats lead to fear and nervous system hyperarousal. Fear leads to disconnection; nervous system hyperarousal turns off the parts of the brain required for connection or empathy. When attachment relationships are characterized by fear and disconnection, the result is disorganized attachment. To understand disorganized attachment, picture a baby who is being shaken and cursed at by a dysregulated parent: the baby is powerless and terrified, and in his terror, he is biologically compelled to seek comfort from an attachment figure—but the attachment figure from whom he must seek comfort is also the source of his terror. It’s an irresolvable dilemma. Attachment strategies collapse. Fight-or-Flight takes over, then crashes into a state of Freeze. Trauma ensues. The brain starts to code interpersonal encounters as dangerous; now, interpersonal encounters trigger additional trauma responses whenever they occur. The attachment relationship becomes increasingly hostile and reactive.

The logic behind disorganized attachment is this: If you use your power over me to harm me, then the only way I can be safe is if I can have power over you. I call it “survival rage”—an aggressive drive to attack the source of danger before it victimizes you again. And in attachment systems, this survival rage leads to mutual obliteration.

Picture that on an international scale. Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

I believe that that is what the invention of the atomic bomb did to the world: it exacerbated insecure relationships between nations—parts of the attachment system—which led to disorganized attachment, aggressive politics and wars (both hot and cold) fueled by survival rage, and the constant threat of mutual obliteration that we have lived with for the past eight decades. Weapons of mass destruction have separated us from one another and pitted us against each other in new and terrible ways. We are destroying each other and our planet through ongoing patterns of disorganized attachment: terror and trauma, dissociation and dehumanization, reciprocating violence toward one another and abusive neglect toward the earth.

We are not going to win this way. We are all inextricable parts of the system. If we destroy each other, we destroy ourselves.

Systems are designed to function in an integrated manner. In the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (of which attachment theory is a part), Dr. Dan Siegel defines the term integration as “a balance of differentiation and linkage.” The unique and irreplaceable roles of different parts are strengthened (differentiation) even as these disparate parts develop stronger connections with one another and smoother patterns of interaction (linkage)—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and individuality is preserved in unity. Through integration, a system thrives; without integration, a system breaks down, erodes, and eventually dies.

Is there a road back to sanity? Is there a way to save ourselves? I think so, but I don’t think that it’s the scientists, soldiers, or politicians who will get us there. If we continue to rely on the scientists, soldiers, and politicians, we perpetuate dis-integration; the system will continue to harm itself. If we can find a way to integrate, though—if we can bring the collective wisdom of humankind to the table, get in touch with our humanity at its best, and learn to listen to the voice of every part of the system (including the Earth that sustains us all)—then perhaps we can start to undo the harm chronicled in Oppenheimer.

I confess, I can hear it even as I write it. It sounds naïve and childishly optimistic, doesn’t it? After so many centuries of turmoil and war, can nations ever fully trust one another? After the ravages of toxic patriarchy, can men and women learn to value one another’s perspectives? After so much racism, exploitation, and abuse, can we establish new patterns of secure attachment in our national and international systems? I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I have a daughter who will, I hope, be in the world long after I’m gone, and I want better for her than this. So, for me, working toward integration still matters.

What do we need to start achieving integration?

Let me give you a brief, non-exhaustive list that focuses on our home turf:

We need feminism. We need interfaith dialogue. We need Black Lives Matter. We need trauma therapy and ongoing funding for research in how people heal. We need music education and poetry slams and community theater. We need to read banned books. We need our schools to teach empathy, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence—and we need our schools to teach the most painful parts of our nation’s history without flinching or turning away. We need full representation in the media we consume, from children’s books to blockbuster films to the television anchors who give us our news. We need support for families—including generous parental leave policies, accessible mental health services, safe and affordable housing, and more—so that more children can experience secure attachment and bring that security to their vocations when they grow up. We need embodiment. We need cross-cultural experiences—opportunities to sing songs, break bread, rub shoulders, and share stories with people who do not look, talk, or believe like us. We need protection of voting rights. We need a Congress that looks like the people it serves, in race, religion, and culture as well as gender and sexual orientation.

We need more voices at the table. Until the decision-makers of the world, who gather at their conference tables and manage our international attachment system, accurately reflect the diversity of the world, we will not integrate and we will not heal. Until the decision-makers of the world have access to the wisdom and kindness of humanity’s highest consciousness, disorganized attachment and survival rage will continue to destroy us. If we want better for our children and for our children’s children, we have work to do.

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