Witnessing Distant Wars
Perhaps we are never more alive when we are conscious of both how little power we have and how much power we have. Perhaps it matters not how we calculate our power, but simply that we bring our bravery to this harsh world.
Tracking the Russian invasion of Ukraine this past weekend was a flashback for me. It reminded me of how closely I followed the news during the Trump presidency and COVID, and how much I've taken a step back from the doom-scrolling in the last year. It all came rushing back: the obsessive podcast listening, Twitter scanning, New York Times app refreshing, the social media tropes of "sending thoughts and prayers" and "their oppression is not as bad as my oppression," the lurid fascination of a news cycle with a duty to inform and a profit-motive to entertain. (The sociology of our relationship to news in the last 5 years deserves serious scholarship.)
But as I watched us watch the news (this is, after all, what social media is: an observance of the observance), I was reminded that the more we grasp the immense size and complexity of the problems we face, the clearer it becomes how small we are in proportion. In the grand scheme of COVID, of war, of climate change, of structural racism, what can any one of us do? It's clear to me that we are a species of doers: we spring into action, we donate our blood and our money, we launch organizations, we subject our social media followers to our newfangled punditry, all the while privately asking ourselves a maddeningly hard question to answer: but what can I do?
Maybe our comprehension of the magnitude of our challenges induces anxiety that only gets worse with inaction. Maybe this is why we shift into over-functioning. I know I personally work out my anxiety by doing more, not doing less, and therefore leave little room to pause and experience a world that might need me to do less, to slow down, to grieve more. When faced with something so big and incomprehensible as war or pandemic, it is our doing that makes us resilient and it is our doing that makes us numb.
Perhaps we ought to learn the art of bearing witness, of feeling the pain that comes when there is no resolution, of sitting with (as in the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva)...maybe this is our spiritual work in a world that will continue to bombard us with requirements for our participation.
But this weekend has also reminded me that there is power in the doing. In the same way that the (first) curve of COVID infections was flattened through millions of individual actions, what we are witnessing now is a story of national power through individual doing: individual Ukrainians making individual choices to stay and protect their homes, to fight for their children, to take action in a way that is as contagious as it is heartbreaking. Perhaps we are never more alive when we are conscious of both how little power we have and how much power we have. Perhaps it matters not how we calculate our power, but simply that we bring our bravery to this harsh world.