Carrying the Burden of “Forever Karma” is Too Big to Carry Alone

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by Martha O’Hehir

Some of us carry deep-seated emotions associated with our growing up during the Cold War years. The nuclear threat was real and frightening, and yet occurred for most people as something that someone else was responsible for creating and avoiding. The legacy of nuclear radioactivity in the water, the air and the ground is an ecological inheritance we carry today. It is one aspect of the “forever karma” that Joanna Macy speaks of.

A few of us also carry deep and dark secrets of responsibility for this “Forever Karma” from our childhoods. How could a child feel responsible for this? We are the children of the adults who created, tested and detonated the nuclear bomb. We carry a burden of family karma deep in our DNA and our psyches. Like any other shadow work, healing can come from speaking our truth, however shameful and unforgivable, and hearing the healing words of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. This happened to me recently as I reached out to the editors of The Deep Times Journal with my offer to use my writing and editing skills for this journal. I felt I had to write back and confess my secret shame, and a poignant conversation ensued. Below is our thread of emails.

April 24, 2018

   There is one more thing I want you and the team to know about. It is a family legacy issue that is quite troubling to me and could have a bearing on my contributions to the Work That Reconnects. In my own heart, the atomic testing of the 1950’s and 60’s is a cause of great fear and sorrow, and I share with many others the sense of helplessness and anger at what was unleashed on the world. I know that many would say that the atomic bomb capacity would have been more ruthlessly used in the hands of others, but at the end of the day, “we did it.”  As a child, I suffered severe trauma from the nuclear threat, growing up in Washington, DC, and having a close exposure to the development of the warfare that supposedly was responsible for saving us from nuclear annihilation during the cold war years. While I understood all the arguments and was taught to honor the brilliant men who led the way, my own heart and prayers were always to find a way to reverse this horrible trend and to make the insanity stop.  For me, The Work That Reconnects is a way of reparation, healing, and prayer, and a way to do something.  

 I carry sorrow, shame, and a deep desire to repair the karmic damage to my lineage and to the world

But it is important for me to let you know that I carry a certain shame around the fact that my upbringing was paid for by my father who was a nuclear physicist at the time, who was a college grad brought in to assist with the Manhattan Project, and who was in attendance at all but one test. He eventually became an administrator of the Defense Nuclear Agency. I carry sorrow, shame, and a deep desire to repair the karmic damage to my lineage and to the world, all of which is a burden I can’t even take in fully. I do hope to give more to the WTR, but I also wanted to let you know of my connection to the source of the problem, to the source of so much pain and sorrow, evil and pollution. 


Later, on April 24, 2018

I have a similar karmic connection to the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons and energy, having grown up in Los Alamos.

Martha, I feel honored that you have shared your story with me.  If you read my preface to Coming Back to Life (maybe you already have), you know I have a similar karmic connection to the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons and energy, having grown up in Los Alamos.  My family moved there at the end of 1945, when I was three years old.  My father wasn’t a scientist, but worked as personnel director of the Lab, and later as public relations officer. So he contributed to the work that went on there, and almost certainly to the cover-up of the fallout from bomb testing in the 1950s.  I have often wondered how much his possible internal conflict about that (he had been a newspaper reporter and editor previously) contributed to his lifelong depression and later dementia.

Actually, it was Joanna’s work in the Nuclear Guardianship Project that first attracted me to her in 1990.  I had been an anti-nuclear activist for a long time, even while living in Los Alamos as an adult, and saw the possibility of redemption in this work.

I want to say to you that you are not responsible for the actions of your parents or ancestors, especially since you see so clearly the damage that was done in the Manhattan Project and subsequently.  No denial here!



Later, April 24, 2018

Dear Molly, Martha, and all:

Thank you for these emails which share profound history and touch me deeply. Each of us has our own experience and story about The Bomb. Mine is different than yours, Molly and Martha, but nonetheless karmic for me. My family is Quaker, and my father was a conscientious objector during WWII. As you can imagine, this was a very unpopular position during wartime. As part of his CO alternative service, he and my mother directed an American Friends Service Committee hostel in Des Moines, Iowa from 1943-1945. Even during the war, some Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the internment camps in the barren wastelands of the west (and south) were allowed to leave if they went inland (away from the west coast) and had a place to live and a job to support themselves and their families. The AFSC established a few hostels in which Japanese-Americans could come to live until finding their own homes and jobs. So from age 3-5, I lived in a huge house with “the enemy” who were my family. I was a “little blondie growing up in a sea of dark-hairs.” While I was too little to understand much cognitively, I absorbed the trauma of the internment and the appreciation of those who tried to help the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei (1st, 2nd, 3rd generations) build life anew. 

What I saw there was burned into my mind, heart, and soul forever.

I can only imagine the grief and horror felt by the Japanese-American and Quaker community I lived in when our American bombs took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember those fateful days (I was barely 5), but I know that I absorbed those feelings and forever after—at some level—felt guilty for dropping those terrible bombs. I spent my junior year of college in Tokyo. During that time, I felt that I had to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps doing so was my personal pilgrimage of apology. On August 6, 1961 I visited the Peace Park and Museum in Hiroshima for the first time. The Museum shows in extremely graphic detail the aftermath of the bomb in all its horrific destruction. What I saw there was burned into my mind, heart, and soul forever. Across my lifetime, stopping nuclear (both nuclear weapons and nuclear power) has been my deepest cause. It still is; I’m still lobbying to close the one remaining nuclear power reactor in WA , clean up Hanford, WA (a highly irradiated site where the plutonium was made for the Nagasaki bomb), and prevent the lethal madness of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) being built for your neighborhood and mine. I do not believe these things will occur in my lifetime. But in my small ways, I keep trying—because I MUST.


April 25, 2018

Wow, these stories. Thank you, Martha, Molly, and Carolyn. I’d love to see or do an oral history of the holders of the atomic moment–so inspiring. Something for Deep Times? 

I also am a carrier of ancestral nuclear karma.

Me too. I also am a carrier of ancestral nuclear karma. My father was a captain in Intelligence in the Naval Reserve from WWII through the Cold War. He was called up on high alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while my mom was birthing my sister. At one point, my dad was involved in planning which nukes from the arsenal would be pointed towards which cities in eastern Europe according to where the military and civilian institutions were they wanted to target for obliteration. He told us as he was dying. Some of his last words were, “Thank God detente worked.” I don’t think he’d much imagined dying of natural causes.

The terror is a collective trauma, one of the many, multiple, and overlapping traumas of our age. The Work That Reconnects, and in particular ancestor work and Deep Time work, have been profoundly healing for me. Also, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of healing the past in the present moment for the karma of our ancestors. 

I agree we are not guilty for our parents’ or country’s karma, but it affects us and in mutual causality, we can affect it. We can be part of its healing–and maybe we feel “guilty” because we are called to its healing.

Wow. Glad to begin this conversation.



Later, April 25

Thanks all of you for opening my eyes to these reverberating memories. They each break my heart in varying ways.  I too am grateful for the healing in the Work That Reconnects and am more deeply committed to our efforts. 


Later, April 25, 2018

I have carried this alone for so many years. 60. Often I experienced evaluative responses from activists whose parents and families are not guilty of participation in the nuclear story. 

Joanna’s own story of emotional pain surrounding this topic and her solution to create the WTR literally provided me a means for active hope. 

 As I write, tears are coming to me. Finally. 

As I write, tears are coming to me. Finally. Tears over the radioactive planet. Tears for the sense of forgiveness you have granted me by telling your stories. Tears for the surprise I am experiencing at finding myself a member of a new tribe or cohort by virtue of this family karma. I could not have imagined this outcome from a simple gesture of applying to help write or edit a journal. 

     I wonder how many Adult Children of Nuclear Families (what a twist on “nuclear family”) are experiencing this trauma? This fallout?

     These stories have touched me so deeply and my inner child is being held and allowed to grieve in a new way, 

Thank you all,


Later, April 25

Thank you, Martha, and the others who told their stories. 

I get goosebumps while reading your experiences. Like Rebecca, I am grateful for the WTR healing and feel more committed. 

I am Cuban and my family was in Miami during the missile crisis. 

My father waited at the Miami airport for days; he had signed up as a medic in the expected battle at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) that never came. Detente. Yet the Cuban-American feeling that Kennedy had let us down.

We then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I learned about the nuclear testing there and by age 8 wondered what kind of crazy-ass world this was, with assassinations of presidents/civil rights leaders and developing the nuclear capacity to assassinate the rest of us and my identity group still wishing we’d had the battle anyway. 


With Gratitude, Honoring our Pain, Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forward

To say that I am grateful for the deep listening, forgiveness, and healing from Molly’s and others’ words would be an understatement. Being able to own and honor my painful shame and to see with new eyes that I am not responsible for my parents’ mistakes or successes, has given me a new slate, a new urgency, and a new energy to look and walk forward. Instead of carrying the weight of my burden alone, I have found a tribe of grown children who shared not only the terror and the burden, but now, who share the hope, the ACTIVE HOPE.

How about you, dear reader: do you have a story of a karmic burden to tell? May we help carry you forward? Please send your story to [email protected].  

Martha O’Heir is an educator and writer and has served as an editor or contributing editor for several publications, including the The Music Practitioner,The Orff Echo, and Reverberations. She wrote curriculums, elementary music and math, religious studies, and music improvisation for healing musicians. She is a facilitator of the Work That Reconnects and gives retreats and workshops connecting the Great Turning with the spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin. Ordained to interfaith ministry as an Eco-Chaplain in 2017, Martha aspires to bring greater consciousness to Earth stewardship as an act of spirituality, through her writing, music, and spiritual direction.

2 thoughts on “Carrying the Burden of “Forever Karma” is Too Big to Carry Alone

  1. Hello Martha:
    Thank you for this…it has helped me.
    Mirakhel Windsong

    When/where will you be giving another retreat/workshop on the connection between the Great Turning and the spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin?

  2. I share the karma that others have expressed here and been able to lessen the connections and feelings of my connection to the bomb by interviewing others with a similar experience and writing my book. My father and uncle were scientists on the Manhattan Project at the Met Lab in Chicago, I carried this burden for decades. Not trying to hock my book here but feel others would appreciate and also be able to heal from some from my research and efforts and others stories of having a parent that did this work. Writing the book was a long, painful, and difficult process to accomplish. I went to Los Alamos and Alamagordo to in a sense face the topic straight on. My book is called Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project, here is my website Feel free to contact me if you would like to talk.
    Best, Leah
    [email protected].

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